Yesterday Google Scholar sent me another alert about a new paper. I must say that Google Scholar is becoming my number 1 source to stay up to date about research in mobile security.

The paper, “Formal analysis of 5G authentication“, is a pre-print released by  a team from ETH Zurich, University of Lorraine and University of Dundee. Similarly to a recent paper on LTE security (LTEInspector: A Systematic Approach for Adversarial Testing of 4G LTE), the authors translate the 3GPP protocol specifications into pseudo-code that can be formally verified and analyzed. In this case, the authors analyze the recently released 5G 3GPP specifications, with special focus on the authentication protocols. To do so, the authors use Tamarin, a protocol verification tool.

I strongly recommend reading the paper. As I expected, the authors found a few weaknesses on the protocol. The 5G AKA protocol appears to fail to meet several security goals that are explicitly required by the 3GPP specifications, as well as other critical security properties. The paper highlights weaknesses in the standard and suggests improvements and refinements. Such an interesting work and an excellent paper.

It is worth noting that a couple months ago I was invited to write an opinion article on 5G security and I got some criticism from 3GPP folks on it, claiming that 5G is secure and things have been improved very much. As I stated in my article (Are we there yet? The long path to securing 5G mobile communication networks), I still see a long way to go to fully secure mobile communication networks. And the new sophisticated security architecture and PKI infrastructure are very interesting, but based on the unrealistic assumption that each SIM will have a public key or certificate for all operators from all countries. I always acknowledge that it is very hard to achieve a secure mobile communications system and the only reason I work in proactively identifying security weaknesses is to keep raising awareness on this problem.

It makes me happy to see so much excellent work coming from academia in the area of mobile security. Excellent research topic for talented PhD students to work on. And it makes me even happier that, just a couple of months after being publicly released, there is security research analyzing the 5G specifications. I am myself currently involved in a research project on 5G security with a team from VATech under Prof. Jeffrey Reed and Prof. Vuk Marojevic. We are working on a new paper on 5G security that should be out sometime later this summer or early Fall. Stay tuned! For the ones of you who saw me speak at UC Irvine last May or at Hushcon East in NY in June, you already got a bit of a sneak peak.