NCC Group placed first in global 5G Cyber Security Hack competition

In June of this year, Traficom – the Finnish transport and communications agency – along with the Aalto University, Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, and PwC, organized the 5G Cyber Security Hack competition. A similar event was organised in November 2019 in Oulu, Finland and this hackathon-style event was a follow-up to their successful 2019 event. Due to Covid restrictions, this year’s event was fully remote and as such made it easier for a larger pool of security experts to take part. Similar to 2019, there were four interesting hacking challenges relating to 5G technology and its use cases. The NCC Group team participated in the 2019 event and finished in second place in the Ericsson challenge, so we were eager to take on this year’s challenge.  A large number of participants took part in the event this year with around 130 security experts from around the world, and teams are invited to participate by application only.

This year, NCC Group consultants, Ross Bradley, Eva Esteban Molina, Phil Marsden and Mark Tedman took part in the Ericsson “Hack the Crown Jewels” challenge, for which they won first prize.

5G networks offer greater connectivity and faster wireless broadband and are now being rolled out over a large proportion of the world with it now being used extensively by 250+ million subscribers world-wide. With that comes the exponential increase in 5G speed and capacity, and there has been a decisive shift in technology development pushing new capability from home networks to critical national infrastructures all using 5G equipment. The security of 5G networks is now high on the agenda of many operators, vendors and governments and excellent events like the 5G Cyber Security hackathon highlight the continuing work ongoing to help secure these networks. 

This Hack challenge offered hackers four real-life use cases for 5G to work on – a Cisco CTF challenge on a staged 5G network, a 5G Ericsson Packet Core Gateway, Nokia’s edge data center system and PwC/Aalto University’s 5G testbed.

The Hack is admittedly fun, but it isn’t just for fun – these kinds of activities play a really crucial part in the iterative design and engineering process for network equipment manufacturers to ensure the security and safety of users. Each company putting forward a use case for hacking also offering up bug bounty prize money, which is shared among the best hacker(s) / team(s), as one mechanism for helping vendors to ideally find and remediate security risks in their systems before threat actors can exploit them.

The 5G Packet Core Gateway challenge

The details of the overall event, including the findings of individual challenges, are subject to non-disclosure agreements, but the exercise itself was a great demonstration of our Telecommunication Practice’s capability. The 5G Ericsson Packet Core Gateway is a key part of the mobile 5G core infrastructure and it is essential that all vendors understand how vulnerabilities and security risks within it could be exploited by an attacker. We dedicated our time to on the Ericsson challenge, which focussed on finding security weaknesses in the backbone of the mobile 5G core infrastructure – the Packet Core Gateway.

The hackathon started with an introduction on Friday evening, with challenges opening up to competitors at 8pm. Hacking continued all weekend till 11am on the Sunday morning. Our findings were shared throughout the competition with the Ericsson team, with final findings submitted before the 11am deadline on the Sunday morning. Prizes were award on the Sunday afternoon at which time it was revealed we had won the Ericsson challenge (plus come second in the team photo)! The event was well-run by the Ericsson team and the event organisers and we look forward to participating in any future events. 

About NCC Group’s Telecommunications Practice

This competition is just one of the many ways that NCC Group is actively improving the security of 5G infrastructure. In addition to our 5G security research (some of which is published on this blog), we regularly work closely with network equipment manufacturers and operators alike, including through paid consulting engagements. We conduct regular security reviews of 5G core and RAN equipment, with specialist researchers and consultants skilled in everything from reverse engineering and hardware reviews to detailed high level threat assessments.