Open Source mobile communications, security research and contributions

While preparing my presentation for the Troopers 2016 TelcoSecDay I was thinking once again about the importance of having FOSS implementations of cellular protocol stacks, interfaces and network elements in order to enable security researches (aka Hackers) to work on improving security in mobile communications.

From the very beginning, this was the motivation of creating OpenBSC and OsmocomBB: To enable more research in this area, to make it at least in some ways easier to work in this field. To close a little bit of the massive gap on how easy it is to do applied security research (aka hacking) in the TCP/IP/Internet world vs. the cellular world.

We have definitely succeeded in that. Many people have successfully the various Osmocom projects in order to do cellular security research, and I'm very happy about that.

However, there is a back-side to that, which I'm less happy about. In those past eight years, we have not managed to attract significant amount of contributions to the Osmocom projects from those people that benefit most from it: Neither from those very security researchers that use it in the first place, nor from the Telecom industry as a whole.

I can understand that the large telecom equipment suppliers may think that FOSS implementations are somewhat a competition and thus might not be particularly enthusiastic about contributing. However, the story for the cellular operators and the IT security crowd is definitely quite different. They should have no good reason not to contribute.

So as a result of that, we still have a relatively small amount of people contributing to Osmocom projects, which is a pity. They can currently be divided into two groups:

  • the enthusiasts: People contributing because they are enthusiastic about cellular protocols and technologies.
  • the commercial users, who operate 2G/2.5G networks based on the Osmocom protocol stack and who either contribute directly or fund development work at sysmocom. They typically operate small/private networks, so if they want data, they simply use Wifi. There's thus not a big interest or need in 3G or 4G technologies.

On the other hand, the security folks would love to have 3G and 4G implementations that they could use to talk to either mobile devices over a radio interface, or towards the wired infrastructure components in the radio access and core networks. But we don't see significant contributions from that sphere, and I wonder why that is.

At least that part of the IT security industry that I know typically works with very comfortable budgets and profit rates, and investing in better infrastructure/tools is not charity anyway, but an actual investment into working more efficiently and/or extending the possible scope of related pen-testing or audits.

So it seems we might want to think what we could do in order to motivate such interested potential users of FOSS 3G/4G to contribute to it by either writing code or funding associated developments...

If you have any thoughts on that, feel free to share them with me by e-mail to laforge@gnumonks.org.