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A common saying among people in the field of cryptography and security is that when providing a back door to law enforcement, you also provide a back door for hackers.

I was trying to examine the implementation of Lawful Interception from 4G and the proposed implementation in 5G and to me it looks secure. The only way for a hacker to gain information that they shouldn't would be if they knew the private key of the base station.

If we assume that the private key of the base station is secure, what could a hacker do that they could not have done without Lawful Interception being implemented?

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    If we assume that everything is secure and everyone working in law enforcement is trustworthy then nothing. What exactly do you mean with "the private key of the base station is secure"? Its cryptographically secure? It is securely stored? It is impossible for anyone to copy it? ... – Josef May 10 at 8:26
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    what if law enforcement gets hacked? – Pizza lord May 10 at 8:27
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    History proves you wrong. Similar "features" has been abused in the past. – vidarlo May 10 at 8:37
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    What if your ex husband works at the police, or the neighbor that you're having a dispute with? Can the police be bribed or exorted because of debts? etc. – pipe May 10 at 13:43
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    Note that social engineering is a subset of hacking. – Roman Odaisky May 10 at 22:04
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If there's a backdoor, it will be abused. The question is when, not if it will be abused.

There are too many actors that could compromise such a system, and no easy way to plug the holes. If a private key leaks, it's done. It's cheaper to all involved to ignore the leak until there's a high profile case blowing to the press. Changing every key on every base station will require a lot of work.

If the feature exists, no amount of red tape will protect it. People can be bought. People commit software to the wrong repository, send email to the wrong address, copy keys to USB drivers and lose them. And it takes only one leak.

And stealing the key is not the only option: convincing an authorized operator or infecting his computer are possible options too.

  • But the same is true for "frontdoors", an intended backdoor isn't a backdoor at all. It's not bypassing normal authentication and it's not secret. It's just another door into the system. Is having two doors less secure than one? Yes, of course. Does that mean it will be abused? Just as likely as any other door. Of course the risk assessment of a base station being compromised and a phone being compromised are different, but likely that's reflected also in the difficulty (getting a user to install malware on a phone is a lot easier). (Not saying it's a good idea or not, just shallow answer) – David Mulder May 11 at 9:52
  • @DavidMulder as the Greek hacking scandal showed though, the "backdoor" isn't as well tested as the front door for the simple reason it's not used as much. In fact, that's how it was detected - enabling the backdoor caused dropped SMS messages. The Greek PM complained to Vodafone leading to the hack's detection. – Panagiotis Kanavos May 13 at 7:42
  • @DavidMulder The hack wasn't simple and probably involved former Ericsson employees. That doesn't mean it wasn't significant though. Whoever wants to hack base stations (nation or mob) probably has enough means to find, bribe or extort the necessary people. Remember Stuxnet too - why bribe the base station technician when you can install malware on their machines? What if the vendor is as sloppy with the base stations as they are with their smartphone security? (I do have that vendor in mind) – Panagiotis Kanavos May 13 at 7:54
  • @PanagiotisKanavos Totally agree that all access points to a system need to be seriously tested and often they are not, but that's not a principal problem. – David Mulder May 13 at 8:22
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While I agree that every point of schroeder's response is true, there are two deeper issues that make it so much more dangerous than the current model of security. Right now, if you install an encryption key on a system, that key only controls your system and can only be accessed by the people you trust to access your system.

Breaking into any system is a question of economics to any would be attacker. Let's say for example, that your system is a database of 5000 clients with 5 users who can access it from a single network. A hacker has very few possible access points to try to exploit, and the odds of him finding a misconfiguration are relatively small; so, they need to ask themselves if they can spend little enough time and money getting into your system to make those 5000 client records worth their investment. If this network was set up by a mostly competent person, the answer is probably no.

A national back-door could be just as well encrypted, but it would expose hundreds of millions of devices to thousands of law enforcement agents. Hundreds of separate networks will be set up by sysadmins of various skill levels. Many of the cops you trust to access the system will not be properly trained in cyber security. In this case, a hacker only needs to target one of the many, many people, devices, or networks who create these weak links. This makes intruding on the system several orders of magnitude easier, while making the pay off several orders of magnitude greater.

In fact, the payoff is so much greater, it would be worth it to many hackers and national governments to go through the training process of joining law enforcement just with the goal of gaining access to this system.

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Without access to the key, then the problem for attackers is the same as if there was no backdoor key: the attackers would have to break the encryption itself.

But ...

If we assume that the private key of the base station is secure

Your base assumption is the one that requires challenge. That there is a key is the problem.

  • key handling
  • key misuse
  • key leakage
  • key strength
  • key protection

Each one of these elements needs to be secured for the key to be secure. And there are a lot of moving parts there and a lot of ways for people to cause weaknesses and ways for malicious actors to manipulate controls to their advantage.

Even if we perfectly trusted all law enforcement not to be malicious, ever (a sensitive topic on its own, but of course, impossible) then there are still lots of ways for weaknesses to creep in or for trusted people to be manipulated.

Once the door is there, it will become the intense focus of those with time, resources, and strong desire wanting access. How resilient will those with legitimate access be against such an onslaught? How perfect will those people be in engaging in the established procedures even without external pressures?

Once you cut a hole in a wall, it becomes a point of weakness. The strongest lock will not compensate for hinges that can be broken.

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    In addition, as demonstrated in Greece, the functionality provided may be abused by malware installed on the equipment. Not providing the functionality will make an attack harder. – vidarlo May 10 at 8:57
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    The problem is that lawmakers have such an intense desire to be able to spy on people. They have no understanding for (or completely disregard) the resulting overall weakness of the system. Any backdoor - including a "lawful" backdoor - can and at some point will be abused! – MechMK1 May 10 at 10:39
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    Quite. Social engineering of officials is always an issue in a setup like this, too. In the UK there is a mechanism where people have their number omitted from public directories. Ten years ago, through using a corrupt phone company official, a hitman tracked down someone in witness protection. It cost them <$200, if I remember the case right, possibly less than their train fare. Presumably similar access will be possible to criminals with this new functionality. At some point someone who controls key access will be bought. – Dannie May 10 at 12:53
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    Note that one of the big "key" problems is related to the number of keys. Because of the way cellphones are supposed to work, you want them to automatically connect to any trusted tower, whether it's down the street or the destination country of your international trip. An attacker only has to compromise one.... – Clockwork-Muse May 10 at 21:30
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    @DavidMulder I think you're getting hung up on the "back door" analogy. It's really more like a skeleton key. Back door doesn't just mean "another door", but a way of bypassing the security measures on the front door. I have a passphrase that lets me decrypt my encrypted data. Bob has his own passphrase that lets him decrypt his encrypted data. My front door requires entering my pass phrase to access my data. Bob's front door requires him entering his pass phrase to access his data. The government has a back door that doesn't require anyone's pass phrase, and lets them access EVERYONE's data. – barbecue May 11 at 12:45

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