GSM Encryption And Location Update Process

Have you ever wondered as what happens when you turn on your mobile phone? How does it communicate to the network in a secure manner? Almost all of us would have read about TCP/IP and many of us would be experts in it but when it comes to telecom, very few know about how it actually works from inside. What’s the message structure in gsm? What kind of encryption it uses? So, today we will talking in detail about the encryption standards of gsm and how the mobile phone update it’s location to the mobile network.

What happens when you turn on your cell phone?

When you turn on your cell phone, It first initiates it’s radio resource and mobility management process.
The phone receives a list of frequencies supported on the neighbouring cells either by the SIM or from the network.
It camps on a cell depending upon the power level and the mobile provider. After that, It performs a location update process to the network where the authentication happens. After a successful location update, the mobile phone gets it’s TMSI and it is ready to do other operations now.

Now, let’s verify the above statements by having a look at the mobile application debug logs. The below screenshots are from the osmocom mobile application which simulates a mobile phone working on a PC.

Mobile network information sent by SIM

Camping on a cell

Location update requested which includes it’s LAI and TMSI

Location updating accepted and used encryption standard visible.


We would capture gsm data in wireshark through osmocom-bb and analyse how the entire process of gsm authentication and encryption happens. We will also see how the location update process happens.

We have already talked in detail about osmocom-bb and call setup process in our last blog. We would be skipping that part in this blogpost.

GSM encryption standards

A5/0 – No encryption used. Just for the sake of completeness.

A5/1 – A5/1 is a stream cipher used to provide over-the-air communication privacy in the GSM cellular telephone standard. It is one of seven algorithms which were specified for GSM use. It was initially kept secret, but became public knowledge through leaks and reverse engineering. A number of serious weaknesses in the cipher have been identified.

A5/2 – A5/2 is a stream cipher used to provide voice privacy in the GSM cellular telephone protocol. It was used for export instead of the relatively stronger (but still weak) A5/1. It is one of seven A5 ciphering algorithms which have been defined for GSM use.

A5/3 (Kasumi) – KASUMI is a block cipher used in UMTS, GSM, and GPRS mobile communications systems. In UMTS, KASUMI is used in the confidentiality and integrity algorithms with names UEA1 and UIA1, respectively. In GSM, KASUMI is used in the A5/3 key stream generator and in GPRS in the GEA3 key stream generator.

There are some others also but the above mentioned are used in majority.

How gsm authentication and encryption happens?

Every GSM mobile phone has a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). The SIM provides the mobile phone with a unique identity through the use of the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI). The SIM is like a key, without which the mobile phone can’t function. It is capable of storing personal phone numbers and short messages. It also stores security related information such as the A3 authentication algorithm, the A8 ciphering key generating algorithm, the authentication key (KI) and IMSI. The mobile station stores the A5 ciphering algorithm.


The authentication procedure checks the validity of the subscriber’s SIM card and then decides whether the mobile station is allowed on a particular network. The network authenticates the subscriber through the use of a challenge-response method. First, a 128 bit random number (RAND) is transmitted to the mobile station over the air interface. The RAND is passed to the SIM card, where it is sent through the A3 authentication algorithm together with the Ki. The output of the A3 algorithm, the signed response (SRES) is transmitted via the air interface from the mobile station back to the network. On the network, the AuC compares its value of SRES with the value of SRES it has received from the mobile station. If the two values of SRES match, authentication is successful and the subscriber joins the network. The AuC actually doesn’t store a copy of SRES but queries the HLR or the VLR for it, as needed.

Generation of SRES


When a new GSM subscriber turns on his phone for the first time, its IMSI is transmitted to the AuC on the network. After which, a Temporary Mobile Subscriber Identity (TMSI) is assigned to the subscriber. The IMSI is rarely transmitted after this point unless it is absolutely necessary. This prevents a potential eavesdropper from identifying a GSM user by their IMSI. The user continues to use the same TMSI, depending on the how often, location updates occur. Every time a location update occurs, the network assigns a new TMSI to the mobile phone. The TMSI is stored along with the IMSI in the network. The mobile station uses the TMSI to report to the network or during call initiation. Similarly, the network uses the TMSI, to communicate with the mobile station. The Visitor Location Register (VLR) performs the assignment, the administration and the update of the TMSI. When it is switched off, the mobile station stores the TMSI on the SIM card to make sure it is available when it is switched on again.

Encryption and decryption of data

GSM makes use of a ciphering key to protect both user data and signaling on the vulnerable air interface. Once the user is authenticated, the RAND (delivered from the network) together with the KI (from the SIM) is sent through the A8 ciphering key generating algorithm, to produce a ciphering key (KC). The A8 algorithm is stored on the SIM card. The KC created by the A8 algorithm, is then used with the A5 ciphering algorithm to encipher or decipher the data. The A5 algorithm is implemented in the hardware of the mobile phone, as it has to encrypt and decrypt data on the fly.

Generation of encryption key(Kc)

Data encryption/decryption using Kc

GSM authorization/encryption steps

GSM authorization/encryption process

  1. When you turn on your mobile for the first time, the MS sends it’s IMSI to the network.

  2. when a MS requests access to the network, the MSC/VLR will normally require the MS to authenticate. The MSC will forward the IMSI to the HLR and request authentication Triplets.

  3. When the HLR receives the IMSI and the authentication request, it first checks its database to make sure the IMSI is valid and belongs to the network. Once it has accomplished this, it will forward the IMSI and authentication request to the Authentication Center (AuC). The AuC will use the IMSI to look up the Ki associated with that IMSI. The Ki is the individual subscriber authentication key. It is a 128-bit number that is paired with an IMSI when the SIM card is created. The Ki is only stored on the SIM card and at the AuC. The Auc will also generate a 128-bit random number called the RAND.

The RAND and the Ki are inputted into the A3 encryption algorithm. The output is the 32-bit Signed Response (SRES). The SRES is essentially the “challenge” sent to the MS when authentication is requested. The RAND, SRES, and Kc are collectively known as the Triplets.

The HLR will send the triplets to the MSC/VLR.

  1. The VLR/MSC will then forward only the RAND value to the MS.
  2. The MS calculates SRES using Ki stored in it’s sim and RAND value send by the network. The MS send this SRES value back to the MSC/VLR.

  3. The MSC/VLR matches the SRES value with the one that HLR sent to it. If it matches, it successfully authorizes the MS.

  4. Once authenticated, both the mobile and the network generates Kc using the Ki and RAND value with the help of A8 algorithm.

  5. The data is then encrypted/decrypted using this uniquely generated key(Kc) with A5 ciphering algorithm.

Location update steps.

Location update process

  1. When you turn on your cellphone, it first tells the network that yes I am here and I want to register to the network.
    After that It sends a location update request which include it’s previous LAI, It’s TMSI.

  2. After receiving the TMSI, if the TMSI does not exists in it’s databse, the VLR asks for IMSI and after recieving the IMSI the VLR asks the HLR for the subscriber info based on his IMSI.

Here, if the VLR does not find the TMSI in it’s database, it will find the address of the old VLR which the MS was connected to using the LAI. A request is sent to the old VLR, requesting the IMSI of the subscriber. VLR
provides the IMSI corresponding to the TMSI sent by the MS. Note that the IMSI could have been obtained from the mobile. That is not a preferred option as the Location Updating Request is sent in clear so it could be used to determine the association between the IMSI and TMSI.

  1. The HLR in turn asks the AuC for the triplets for this IMSI. The HLR forwards the triplets(Rand,Kc,SRES) to the VLR/MSC.
  2. The MSC will take details from the VLR and pass only the RAND value to the MS. The MS will compute the SRES again and will send it back to the MSC.

  3. The MSC will verify the SRES stored in the VLR and will compare to the SRES sent by the MS. If both matches then the location update is successful.

  4. After it is successful, HLR update happens and it will update it’s current location and TMSI is allocated to this MS.
    Since the TMSI assignment is being sent after ciphering is enabled, the relationship between TMSI and the subscriber cannot be obtained by unauthorized users. The GSM mobile replies back indicating that the new TMSI allocation has been completed.

Now, we will analyze the gsm packets in wireshark and check what’s really happening over the air.

  1. Immediate assignment – Radio channel requested by MS and radio channel allocated to MS by the MS provider. We can also see what kind of control channel (SDCCH/SACCH) is being used here in the channel description.

2. Location update requested – The MS sends a location update request which include it’s previous LAI and it’s TMSI.

3. Authentication request – The VLR/MSC will forward the RAND which it got from the HLR to the MS. We can clearly see the random value that the network sent to the mobile.

4. SRES generation in MS – The MS will generate the SRES value using the A3 authentication algorithm with the help of Ki stored in the sim.

5. Authentication response – The MS will send the SRES value which it calculated. We can clearly see the SRES value here.

6. Ciphering mode command – The BSC sends the CIPHERING MODE COMMAND to the mobile. Ciphering has already been enabled, so this message is transmitted with ciphering. The mobile replies back to it with mode CIPHERED. We can also see the Ciphering mode complete packet below. We can see that it is using A5/1 cipher.

7. Location updating accepted – After the successful authentication, location update happens where the MS give it’s location information to the network.

8. TMSI reallocation complete – The MS provider will allocate a TMSI to the MS and this message would be encrypted so that no one can sniff the identity of the user (TMSI).

9. Radio channel release – The allocated radio channel is released by the MS.

What now?

It was noticed that sometimes operators didn’t use any encryption at all so that they can handle more load on the network. The encryption/decryption process increases the overhead. Sometimes, there are issues in the configuration of the authentication process which can be used by an attacker to bypass the complete authentication.

GSM Security is a huge unexplored field where a lot has still to be explored and done. Now, when you know how to analyze the gsm data upto the lowest level, you can read, analyze and modify the code of osmocom in order to send arbitrary frames to the network or from the network to the phone. You can start fuzzing gsm level protocols in order to find out if you can actually crash any network device. There is a lot to do but that would require a very deep understanding of the gsm networks and also about the legal aspects around this. I would suggest you to create your own gsm network and run your tests on that if you want to go ahead with this. We will be posting more blog posts on gsm. Stay tuned!




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