GSM Technology – Security and Encryption


The security methods standardized for the GSM System make it the most secure cellular telecommunications standard currently available. Although the confidentiality of a call and anonymity of the GSM subscriber is only guaranteed on the radio channel, this is a major step in achieving end-to- end security.

The subscriber’s anonymity is ensured through the use of temporary identification numbers. The confidentiality of the communication itself on the radio link is performed by the application of encryption algorithms and frequency hopping which could only be realized using digital systems and signaling.

This chapter gives an outline of the security measures implemented for GSM subscribers.

Mobile Station Authentication:

The GSM network authenticates the identity of the subscriber through the use of a challenge-response mechanism. A 128-bit random number (RAND) is sent to the MS. The MS computes the 32-bit signed response (SRES) based on the encryption of the random number (RAND) with the authentication algorithm (A3) using the individual subscriber authentication key (Ki). Upon receiving the signed response (SRES) from the subscriber, the GSM network repeats the calculation to verify the identity of the subscriber.

Note that the individual subscriber authentication key (Ki) is never transmitted over the radio channel. It is present in the subscriber’s SIM, as well as the AUC, HLR, and VLR databases as previously described. If the received SRES agrees with the calculated value, the MS has been successfully authenticated and may continue. If the values do not match, the connection is terminated and an authentication failure indicated to the MS.

The calculation of the signed response is processed within the SIM. This provides enhanced security, because the confidential subscriber information such as the IMSI or the individual subscriber authentication key (Ki) is never released from the SIM during the authentication process.

Signaling and Data Confidentiality:

The SIM contains the ciphering key generating algorithm (A8) which is used to produce the 64-bit ciphering key (Kc). The ciphering key is computed by applying the same random number (RAND) used in the authentication process to the ciphering key generating algorithm (A8) with the individual subscriber authentication key (Ki). As will be shown in later sections, the ciphering key (Kc) is used to encrypt and decrypt the data between the MS and BS.

An additional level of security is provided by having the means to change the ciphering key, making the system more resistant to eavesdropping. The ciphering key may be changed at regular intervals as required by network design and security considerations. In a similar manner to the authentication process, the computation of the ciphering key (Kc) takes place internally within the SIM. Therefore sensitive information such as the individual subscriber authentication key (Ki) is never revealed by the SIM.

Encrypted voice and data communications between the MS and the network is accomplished through use of the ciphering algorithm A5. Encrypted communication is initiated by a ciphering mode request command from the GSM network. Upon receipt of this command, the mobile station begins encryption and decryption of data using the ciphering algorithm (A5) and the ciphering key (Kc).

Subscriber Identity Confidentiality:

To ensure subscriber identity confidentiality, the Temporary Mobile Subscriber Identity (TMSI) is used. The TMSI is sent to the mobile station after the authentication and encryption procedures have taken place. The mobile station responds by confirming reception of the TMSI. The TMSI is valid in the location area in which it was issued. For communications outside the location area, the Location Area Identification (LAI) is necessary in addition to the TMSI.

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Tauseef Emraj Shehan

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