The threat of Signaling!
Signaling level risks, specially fraudulent accesses from connected SS7 networks, is one area which is making a lot of noise in the assurance and security functions of Telecom organizations today.
The focus on the matter is such that most of the industry conferences talking about the current and next gen threats have a lot of matter being presented and shared on this topic – both from the operators and vendors alike.
What is it ?
The signaling level risks generally refer to SS7 (2G/3G) and Diameter (4G) level vulnerabilities (inherent or configuration based) which exposes operators to hacks/frauds through signaling control commands specially in roaming and interconnect scenarios. The scenario becomes more risky considering a normally configured SS7 infrastructure of an operator is accessible to any other operator in this world, either directly or through certain number of hops.
Now, just consider a situation where a rogue operator exists or a group of hackers with a malicious intent have got access to SS7 signaling of any less-secure operator in this world.
The losses due to signaling risks, while are still quite speculative, are expected to run in billions every year. Artificial inflation of traffic (specially A2P & P2A SMSes), Spamming, Spoofing, Refiling, profile modification, unlawful tracking, unethical disruptive activities from competition etc. are examples of some risks which have been found to be existing NOW with an estimated 100% infection rate.
Why is it happening ?
The SS7 signaling based vulnerabilities have been existing since very long, but have become part of news headlines recently due to certain revelations made by famous ethical hackers at certain high profile security conferences.
Some industry pundits make a point, which most of my industry connections agree with, is that these risks exist mostly due to the fact that operators tend to create unreliable partnerships and configure unregulated access (like open GT access, acceptance of any signaling command etc.) which enables malicious parties to connect to operators networks and conduct fraudulent activities very easily.
There have also been discussions around existence of services exploiting these signaling level vulnerabilities being offered in the grey markets through rougue hacking communities for a price.
Can you eradicate these risks ?
Ideal Solution: Operators need to sanitize their access configuration on SS7. Rethink, Reidentify, Reevaluate and Reconfigure the access levels.
But this is really difficult or maybe nearly impossible to achieve due to some practical issues on the ground, such as:
- Most of the SS7 networks were configured long time back – There is an expertise issue operators are facing wrt SS7 networks now which limits their capability in terms of reconfiguration of SS7 based networks
- It is a time consuming activity, which, would also lead to a lot of efforts on re-testing connectivity with all the partners, attracting a lot of investment
- It may lead to reconfiguration of the signaling level configuration at the network level, and in certain instances, would require network downtime – A complete NO-NO for a lot of players out there. Situation becomes even more problematic for countries where Telecom Networks are considered a National Infrastructure.
- Lastly, not every operator will take up this activity for many different reasons including the reasons like operators not participating in the awareness meetings/conferences being organized around the world or even like some rogue operators participating in malicious activities deliberately.
The problem becomes much more trickier from the fact that even one infected, unsecure or rogue operator in the world will continue to pose a threat to everyone else. And sanitizing each operator against these threats is a feat which is very unlikely to be achieved.
It is now unanimously being accepted that SS7 signal based networks are here to stay (atleast 10 years in developed markets and 20-25 in developing or lesser developed countries) and even their vulnerabilities, which are expected to grow by huge amounts considering the limelight it has received recently.
The bigger problem which has started giving sleepless nights to the fraud & security functions in operators moving towards 4G and setting up their networks over diameter protocol (provides 4G signaling framework) does not have native security standards inbuilt, but requires security mechanisms to be implemented on top, a practice always found susceptible to gaps). Also, the access methods are similar to SS7, so it exposes 4G networks to similar signaling risks as SS7.
What can be done now ?
For now, an approach of detection would be ideal until the industry identifies a way to plug these vulnerabilities around the world, which is definitely a few years away with a lot of research hours of investment.
An approach of detecting malicious signaling requests in your network still has few complexities to manage:
- High false positive rates – A lot of signaling requests appearing to be malicious come out as configuration issues from the partners. Hence, domain expertise is essential to filter out ‘needle from the haystack’.
- Sheer size of signaling data to be analyzed – big data support is required.
- Skill set – This activity will surely require a knowledge upscaling and may be difficult for the traditional teams like fraud and risk management to absorb. Even teams like security, with less focus on fraud domain know how, is expected to find it difficult to add this activity in their set of responsibilities.
I feel industry partnerships with vendors, possessing both the domain knowledge, right skill set and technology built on big data platform is the way to go.
These partnerships, considering no-one has a complete answer to this rampant problem of signaling vulnerabilities as of now, need to be built on solid vendor capabilities, while being both liberal and experimental to give room for exploration.
Abhijeet is currently working as Principal Consultant with Subex.
He specializes in Telecom Fraud Management and his 360 degree experience in this field includes extensive exposure in Fraud Operations Management, Consulting & Advisory, Risk & Health Assessments, Business Development – Product & Managed Services and Analytics.
Out of professional life, he is a blogger, tech enthusiast and a traveler.