Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) 2022

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You have been warned: Abusing 5G’s Warning and Emergency Systems

The Public Warning System (PWS) is an essential part of cellular networks and a country’s civil protection. Warnings can notify users of hazardous events (e. g., floods, earthquakes) and crucial national matters that require immediate attention. PWS attacks disseminating fake warnings or concealing precarious events can have a serious impact, causing fraud, panic, physical harm, or unrest to users within an affected area. In this work, we conduct the first comprehensive investigation of PWS security in 5G networks. We demonstrate five practical attacks that may impact the security of 5G-based Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) as well as Earthquake and Tsunami Warning System (ETWS) alerts. Additional to identifying the vulnerabilities, we investigate two PWS spoofing and three PWS suppression attacks, with or without a man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacker. We discover that MitM-based attacks have more severe impact than their non-MitM counterparts. Our PWS barring attack is an effective technique to eliminate legitimate warning messages. We perform a rigorous analysis of the roaming aspect of the PWS, incl. its potentially secure version, and report the implications of our attacks on other emergency features (e. g., 911 SIP calls). We discuss possible countermeasures and note that eradicating the attacks necessitates a scrupulous reevaluation of the PWS design and a secure implementation. Our findings have been acknowledged by the GSMA.

Evangelos Bitsikas
New York University Abu Dhabi and Northeastern University

Christina Pöpper
New York University Abu Dhabi

Paper (ACM DL)



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