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Security experts have known the A5/1 was hackable for the past 7 years

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September 24, 2016

The crypto scheme applied to second generation (2G) mobile phone data can be hacked within a few seconds, security researchers have demonstrated today.

The work by researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (STAR), Singapore shows that breaking the A5/1 stream cipher used by 2G is possible using low-cost and readily available hardware.

Security experts have known the A5/1 was breakable for the past 7 1/2 years, so what the Singapore team has done is illustrate the ease with which this is now possible, re-emphasizing the importance to update all the remaining 2G-based aging mobile communications networks.

"Overall, GSM technology uses an encryption system called the A5/1 Stream Cipher to protect data," said Jiqiang Lu from the STAR Institute for Infocomm Research. "A5/1 uses a 64-bit secret key and a complex key-stream generator to make it resistant to elementary attacks such as exhaustive key searches and various dictionary attacks that we've seen so much of lately."

Security weaknesses in the now outdated A5/1 cipher, combined with the improved performance of number-crunching hardware, have rendered the crypto system easily crackable, the STAR team asserts.

The approach adopted by the Singapore-based researchers is more sophisticated than a vanilla brute force (try every possible combination) attack.

By closely harnessing the two security weaknesses, the researchers were able to compute a look-up table using commodity hardware in about fifty-four days. Determining the secret key used to encrypt communications is possible in as little as nine seconds.

"We used what's called a 'rainbow table' which is constructed offline as a set of chains relating the secret key to the cipher output," a team member explained.

"When an output is received during a specific attack, the hacker identifies the relevant chain in the rainbow table and regenerates it, which gives a result that is very likely to be the secret key of the cipher itself."

The security researchers used a cracking test-set made up of a general-purpose graphics processing unit computer with no less than 3 NVIDIA GeForce GTX 690 cards, costing a total of about $15,000.

Source: The agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

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