5Ghoul: A Threat to 5G Security
5G has benefits, but also risks. 5Ghoul is a set of 5G NR flaws that affect Qualcomm and MediaTek modems, used by most 5G devices. 5Ghoul can disrupt or make unusable smartphones, routers and modems 5G. In this article, we will see what 5Ghoul is, how it compares to other 5G attacks, and how to protect yourself with contactless encryption, which uses NFC.
5Ghoul: How Contactless Encryption Can Secure Your 5G Communications from Modem Attacks
5Ghoul is a set of 5G NR vulnerabilities that affect Qualcomm and MediaTek modems. These flaws allow to launch denial-of-service attacks or degrade the quality of the 5G network.
What is 5Ghoul?
5Ghoul is a set of 14 5G NR (New Radio) vulnerabilities, the protocol that governs the communication between 5G devices and base stations (gNB). Among these vulnerabilities, 10 are public and 4 are still confidential. They were discovered by researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and DesignSingapore University of Technology and Design.
The 5Ghoul vulnerabilities exploit implementation errors in Qualcomm and MediaTek modems, which do not comply with the specifications of the 5G NR protocol. They allow an attacker to create a fake base station, which pretends to be a legitimate one, and send malicious messages to 5G devices that connect to it. These messages can cause errors, crashes or infinite loops in the modems, resulting in denial-of-service attacks or degradations of the quality of the 5G network.
Which devices are affected by 5Ghoul?
The researchers tested the 5Ghoul vulnerabilities on 714 models of 5G smartphones from 24 different brands, including Lenovo, Google, TCL, Microsoft, etc. They also tested routers and modems 5G from various manufacturers. They found that the 5Ghoul vulnerabilities affect all 5G devices equipped with Qualcomm and MediaTek modems, which account for more than 90% of the market.
What are the impacts of 5Ghoul?
The impacts of 5Ghoul depend on the vulnerability exploited and the type of device targeted. The researchers classified the 5Ghoul vulnerabilities into three categories, according to their severity:
Level 1 vulnerabilities
Level 1 vulnerabilities are the most severe. They allow to render 5G devices completely unusable, by locking them in a state where they can neither connect nor disconnect from the 5G network. These vulnerabilities require a manual reboot of the devices to be resolved. Among the level 1 vulnerabilities, there is for example the CVE-2023-33043, which causes a crash of the Qualcomm X55/X60 modem by sending an invalid MAC/RLC message.
Level 2 vulnerabilities
Level 2 vulnerabilities are less critical, but still harmful. They allow to degrade the quality of the 5G network, by reducing the throughput, latency or stability of the connection. These vulnerabilities can be resolved by reconnecting to the 5G network. Among the level 2 vulnerabilities, there is for example the CVE-2023-33044, which causes packet loss on the MediaTek T750 modem by sending an invalid RRC message.
Level 3 vulnerabilities
Level 3 vulnerabilities are the least dangerous. They allow to disrupt the normal functioning of 5G devices, by displaying error messages, modifying settings or triggering alerts. These vulnerabilities have no impact on the quality of the 5G network. Among the level 3 vulnerabilities, there is for example the CVE-2023-33045, which causes an error message on the Qualcomm X55/X60 modem by sending an invalid RRC message.
How to protect yourself from 5Ghoul?
The researchers informed the manufacturers of Qualcomm and MediaTek modems of the 5Ghoul vulnerabilities, as well as the 5G network operators and the 5G device manufacturers. They also published a demonstration kit of the 5Ghoul vulnerabilities on GitHub, to raise awareness among the public and the scientific community of the risks of 5G NR.
To protect yourself from 5Ghoul, 5G device users must update their modems with the latest security patches, as soon as they are available. They must also avoid connecting to unreliable or unknown 5G networks, which could be fake base stations. In case of doubt, they can disable 5G and use 4G or Wi-Fi.
How 5Ghoul compares to other 5G attacks?
5Ghoul is not the first security flaw that affects 5G. Other 5G attacks have been discovered in the past, exploiting weaknesses in the protocol or in the equipment. Here are some examples of 5G attacks and their differences with 5Ghoul:
ReVoLTE is an attack that allows to listen to voice calls 4G and 5G by exploiting a vulnerability in the encryption of data. This vulnerability is due to the fact that some base stations reuse the same encryption key for multiple communication sessions, which allows an attacker to decrypt the content of the calls by capturing the radio signals.
It is different from 5Ghoul because it does not target the 5G modem, but the encryption of data. ReVoLTE also requires that the attacker be close to the victim and have specialized equipment to intercept the radio signals. ReVoLTE does not cause denial of service or degradation of the network, but it compromises the confidentiality of communications.
ToRPEDO is an attack that allows to locate, track or harass mobile phone users 4G and 5G by exploiting a vulnerability in the paging protocol. This protocol is used to notify mobile devices of incoming calls or messages. By sending repeated messages to a phone number, an attacker can trigger paging messages on the network, and thus determine the position or identity of the target device.
It is different from 5Ghoul because it does not target the 5G modem, but the paging protocol. ToRPEDO also requires that the attacker knows the phone number of the victim and has access to the mobile network. ToRPEDO does not cause denial of service or degradation of the network, but it compromises the privacy of users.
IMP4GT is an attack that allows to degrade the quality of the 5G network by exploiting a vulnerability in the security protocol. This protocol is used to authenticate and encrypt the communications between 5G devices and base stations. By modifying the messages exchanged between the two parties, an attacker can mislead the network and the device on the level of security required, and thus reduce the throughput or latency of the connection.
It is different from 5Ghoul because it does not target the 5G modem, but the security protocol. IMP4GT also requires that the attacker be close to the base station and have equipment capable of modifying the messages. IMP4GT does not cause denial of service or crash of the modem, but it degrades the quality of the network.
SS7 is a set of signaling protocols used by mobile operators to establish and manage calls and messages between different networks. SS7 has existed since the 1970s and has not evolved much since, making it vulnerable to hacking attacks. By exploiting the flaws of SS7, an attacker can intercept SMS and voice calls, locate and track users, bypass two-factor authentication, or subscribe subscribers to paid services without their consent.
It is different from 5Ghoul because it does not target the 5G modem, but the signaling protocol. SS7 affects all types of mobile networks, including 5G, because it still uses SS7 for some functions, such as mobility management or compatibility with 2G and 3G networks. SS7 requires that the attacker has access to the signaling network, which is not easy to obtain, but not impossible. SS7 does not cause denial of service or crash of the modem, but it compromises the confidentiality and integrity of communications.
How and why to encrypt SMS, MMS and RCS without contact?
Contactless encryption is a method of protecting mobile communications that uses NFC (Near Field Communication) technology to establish a secure connection between two devices. NFC is a wireless communication protocol that allows to exchange data by bringing two compatible devices within a few centimeters of each other.
Contactless encryption relies on the use of an external device called NFC HSM (Hardware Security Module), which is a hardware security module that stores and manages encryption keys. The NFC HSM comes in the form of a card, a keychain or a bracelet, that the user must bring close to his phone to activate the encryption. The NFC HSM communicates with the phone via NFC and transmits the encryption key needed to secure the messages.
The technologies EviCore NFC HSM and EviCypher NFC HSM are examples of contactless encryption solutions developed by the Andorran company Freemindtronic. EviCore NFC HSM is a hardware security module that allows to encrypt SMS, MMS and RCS (Rich Communication Services) end-to-end, meaning that only the recipients can read the messages. EviCypher NFC HSM is a hardware security module that allows to encrypt multimedia files (photos, videos, audio, etc.) and share them via SMS, MMS or RCS.
Contactless encryption has several advantages over conventional encryption of mobile communications:
It offers a higher level of security, because the encryption key is not stored on the phone, but on the NFC HSM, which is more difficult to hack or steal.
It is compatible with all types of mobile networks, including 5G, because it does not depend on the communication protocol used, but on NFC.
It is easy to use, because it is enough to bring the NFC HSM close to the phone to activate the encryption, without having to install a specific application or create an account.
It is transparent, because it does not change the appearance or functioning of the messages, which remain accessible from the native application of the phone.
Statistics on 5Ghoul
How widespread are 5Ghouls? What are the trends and impacts of these flaws? Some statistics on 5Ghoul, based on sources and data that are a priori reliable.
5Ghoul: a threat to 5G devices
5Ghoul is a set of 5G NR vulnerabilities that affect Qualcomm and MediaTek modems, which are used by most 5G devices on the market. According to the researchers who discovered 5Ghoul, these vulnerabilities can cause denial-of-service attacks or network degradations.
- How many 5G devices are affected by 5Ghoul? According to a report by Counterpoint Research, Qualcomm and MediaTek accounted for 79% of the global smartphone chipset market in Q3 2020. Qualcomm had a 39% share, while MediaTek had a 40% share. Assuming that all Qualcomm and MediaTek chipsets are vulnerable to 5Ghoul, this means that nearly 8 out of 10 smartphones are potentially at risk.
- How many 5G NR vulnerabilities are known? According to the CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) database. There are 16 CVE entries related to 5G NR as of April 2021. Four of them are ZeroDay vulnerabilities that have not been publicly disclosed nor fixed by the manufacturers. These vulnerabilities are classified as level 1 or 2, meaning that they can cause denial-of-service attacks or network degradations.
- How many 5G attacks have been reported? According to the SANS Internet Storm Center, there have been no reports of 5Ghoul attacks in the wild as of April 2021. However, this does not mean that 5Ghoul is not exploited by malicious actors. The researchers who discovered 5Ghoul have developed a proof-of-concept tool called 5Ghoul-Scanner, which can detect and exploit 5Ghoul vulnerabilities. They have also released a video demonstration of 5Ghoul attacks.
5Ghoul is a security flaw that affects 5G modems from Qualcomm and MediaTek, which are used by most 5G devices on the market. 5Ghoul allows an attacker to disrupt the functioning of smartphones, routers and modems 5G, or even make them unusable. 5Ghoul stands out from other 5G attacks known, such as ReVoLTE, ToRPEDO, IMP4GT or SS7, by the fact that it targets the 5G modem, that it does not require secret information or specialized equipment, and that it causes denial-of-service attacks or degradations of the network. To protect yourself from 5Ghoul, 5G device users must update their modems with the latest security patches, and avoid connecting to unreliable or unknown 5G networks.