GSM Cloning

Here is some information on our GSM cloning results, starting at a very high level, and moving on eventually to detailed technical information, with data for the cryptographers and mathematicians at the end. Please feel free to contact us with any questions.

This is joint work with Ian Goldberg (also of the ISAAC research group) and Marc Briceno (Director of the Smartcard Developers Association).

Important note added after publication: This article was released on April 13, 1998. This is the original version of that article (with no changes made other than this note), and is provided primarily for historical reasons. Please beware that some of our understanding about some details of the attack -- especially the possibility of over-the-air cloning -- has changed since when we wrote this note. We now feel that we understated the risk of over-the-air attacks in our initial announcement; based on new information, we have come to the conclusion that over-the-air cloning must be considered a very real threat which should not be ignored. Please see here for a more recent update.

Executive summary:

We've shown how parties with physical access to a victim's GSM cellphone can ``clone'' the phone and fraudulently place calls billed to the victim's account. This shows that the GSM fraud-prevention framework fails to live up to expectations, and casts doubt on its foundation (as well as the design process). However, we should be clear that this is only a partial flaw, not a total failure of the authentication framework: our experiments have been limited to showing that GSM phones can be cloned if the attacker has physical access to the target phone. (In US analog cellphones, one can clone the cellphones with only some radio reception equipment, which is a much more serious flaw; as a consequence, US providers lose over $500 million yearly to fraud.)

One potential threat is that the salesman who sells you a cellphone may have made ``a spare copy of the keys'' for his own use; he may later make fraudulent calls billed to you. Because most providers today apparently rely purely on the authentication codes, with no fallback position if those codes are cracked, such fraud might go undetected until long after the money has been lost.


The GSM fraud-prevention framework relies on special cryptographic codes to authenticate customers and bill them appropriately. A personalized smartcard (called a SIM) in the cellphone stores a secret key which is used to authenticate the customer; knowledge of the key is sufficient to make calls billed to that customer. The tamper-resistant smartcard is supposed to protect the key from disclosure (even against adversaries which may have physical access to the SIM); authentication is done with a cryptographic protocol which allows the SIM to "prove" knowledge of the key to the service provider, thus authorizing a call.

As a result of our mathematical analysis, we have discovered that the cryptographic codes used for authentication are not strong enough to resist attack. To exploit this vulnerability, an individual would interact with the SIM repeatedly; with enough queries, the attacker can use some mathematical techniques to learn the supposedly-secret key. Once the key is compromised, it is possible to make fraudulent calls which will be billed to the victim.

Clarification: not a total break of the authentication framework

We wish to emphasize that we have only demonstrated how to clone a phone if given physical access to the phone (or its SIM chip). Many will probably be interested in the question of whether these attacks can be performed ``over the air'' (i.e. by accessing the target cellphone remotely with specialized radio equipment). While we cannot rule out the possibility that someone may learn how to perform ``over the air'' cloning, we have not demonstrated such an attack in our work.

What went wrong?

This vulnerability can be attributed to a serious failing of the GSM security design process: it was conducted in secrecy. Experts have learned over the years that the only way to assure security is to follow an open design process, encouraging public review to identify flaws while they can still be fixed. There's no way that we would have been able to break the cryptography so quickly if the design had been subjected to public scrutiny; nobody is that much better than the rest of the research community.

In the telecommunications security field, openness is critical to good design. Codemaking is so hard to get right the first time that it is crucial to have others double-check one's ideas. Instead, the GSM design committee kept all security specifications secret -- which made the information just secret enough to prevent others from identifying flaws in time to fix them, but not secret enough to protect the system against eventual scrutiny. With 80 million GSM users, fixing flaws in such a widely-fielded system is likely to be quite costly.

We expect that fixing the flaw may potentially be expensive. A new authentication algorithm would have to be selected. Then new SIMs would have to be programmed with the new algorithm, and distributed to the 80 million end users. Finally, a software upgrade may be required for all authentication centers.

Technical details of the attack

We showed how to break the COMP128 authentication algorithm, an instantiation of A3/A8 widely used by providers. Our attack is a chosen-challenge attack. We form a number of specially-chosen challenges and query the SIM for each one; the SIM applies COMP128 to its secret key and our chosen challenge, returning a response to us. By analyzing the responses, we are able to determine the value of the secret key.

Mounting this attack requires physical access to the target SIM, an off-the-shelf smartcard reader, and a computer to direct the operation. The attack requires one to query the smartcard about 150,000 times; our smartcard reader can issue 6.25 queries per second, so the whole attack takes 8 hours. Very little extra computation is required to analyze the responses.

Though the COMP128 algorithm is supposed to be a secret, we pieced together information on its internal details from public documents, leaked information, and several SIMs we had access to. After a theoretical analysis uncovered a potential vulnerability in the algorithm, we confirmed that our reconstruction of the COMP128 algorithm was correct by comparing a software implementation to responses computed by a SIM known to implement COMP128.

Information for cryptographers

The attack exploits a lack of diffusion: there's a narrow ``pipe'' inside COMP128. In particular, bytes i,i+8,i+16,i+24 at the output of the second round depend only on bytes i,i+8,i+16,i+24 of the input to COMP128. (By ``round'', I refer to one layer of ``butterflies'' and S-boxes; there are a total of 5*8 rounds in COMP128.) Bytes i,i+8 of the COMP128 input are bytes i,i+8 of the key, and bytes i+16,i+24 of the COMP128 input are bytes i,i+8 of the challenge input.

Now we ``probe'' the narrow pipe, by varying bytes i+16,i+24 of the COMP128 input (i.e. bytes i,i+8 of the challenge) and holding the rest of the COMP128 input constant. Since the rounds are non-bijective, you can hope for a collision in bytes i,i+8,i+16,i+24 of the output after two rounds. The birthday paradox guarantees that collisions will occur pretty rapidly (since the pipe is only 4 bytes wide); collisions in the narrow pipe can be recognized, since they will cause a collision in the output of COMP128 (i.e. the two authentication responses will be the same); and each collision can be used to learn the two key bytes i,i+8 with a bit of analysis of the first two rounds (i.e. perform a ``2-R attack'', in the terminology of differential cryptanalysis).

As stated, this would require 2^{4*7/2 + 0.5} = 2^{14.5} chosen-input queries to COMP128 to learn two key bytes (since each of the four bytes of output after the second round are actually only 7-bit values), and thus would require 8 * 2^{14.5} = 2^{17.5} queries to recover the whole 128-bit key Ki. However, we have some optimizations to get this number down a bit.

Note that there is a significant amount of literature on the design of cryptographic hash functions out of a FFT-like structure (as COMP128 is designed). For instance, Serge Vaudenay's work on a theory of black-box cryptanalysis (as well as his other work, e.g. ``FFT-Hash II is not yet secure'') is more than sufficient to uncover this weakness in COMP128. In other words, our attack techniques are not particularly novel.