Cybersecurity Risks of 5G

The 5th generation of cellular networking (5G) is a game-changer and is shaping up to be paradigm shift to spur the fourth industrial revolution. In contrast to 4G, which was designed for communication and applications, 5G is designed for Internet of Things (IoT) to foster an environment that connects the virtual and physical worlds to enrich and empower lives. The technical attributes of 5G are network slicing (network-as-a-service), virtual networks rather than physical architecture, ultra-low latency and enhanced mobile broadband speed.

In an economic context, it is estimated that 5G enabled industrial digitalisation will add 22 million new jobs and expected to pump $12 trillion in the US economy. The plethora of benefits of 5G includes lower network latency, greater bandwidth, increased data speed and higher reliability. 5G is the connective tissue of IoT that not only will it be linking and controlling robots but revolutionising industrials equipment, medical devices and agriculture machinery.  The applications of 5G include smart cars and transport, Telehealth services, smart grids, smart inventories and augmented, virtual reality (AR/VR) and so much more, the possibilities seem endless.

5G and cybersecurity landscape

However, extraordinary technologies such as 5G brings new cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities.  For instance, hackers have sabotaged home appliances, breached security of dams and stopped internet-connected cars. The emerging cybersecurity risks and challenges associated with 5G can be categorised as infrastructure risk, platform risk, location risks and device risks.   

  1. 5G has moved away from hardware-based centralised switching to software based digital routing (SDN). The move from traditional hardware (switches and routers) toward software approach that is distributed openly increases the network vulnerabilities because it enables the hackers to attack from multiple dimensions, which might not be protected as the old hardware approach to utilise hardware as choke points. Attackers can gain control of the software managing the network and can control the entire network and this poses significant infrastructure risks.
  2. The billions of new IoT devices create new vulnerabilities for medical and transport as well as public safety devices – all which are uniquely vulnerable. This poses overwhelming risk and the attack surface will be difficult to overcome. For instance, cyber attackers hack smart grids and cut-off the electricity, which could put many lives in danger and this present additional platform risks.
  3. 5G relies on low-cost, short-range and physical antennas that need to be placed in building and streets. This dynamic spectrum sharing involves breaking up the levels of bandwidth into slices for speed and efficiency. The greater bandwidth expansions bring new avenue of attacks and small antennas become source of prey for cyber attacks and this presents significant location risks
  4. IoT botnets are more powerful and larger than application based malware and 5G data speed will make the problem worse. The malwares and botnets will spread faster with faster networks with the potential for rapid increases in infected systems and devices. For example, ransomware can be used to hack IoT device and can be used as a weapon to commit an act of physical sabotage or disrupt the entire system and this presents significant device risks.
  5. With 5G, there is increased dependency on third-party suppliers because there are more components involved with 5G than current network infrastructures. For instance, Huawei is largest supplier of 5G components that are needed for an efficient 5G network. The increased reliance on Huawei presents security risks such as a monopoly and increased opportunities for espionage, which presents national security risks.

Mitigating 5G risk

The three steps that can make it difficult for bad actors to exploit 5G network vulnerabilities are; (1) resilience of infrastructure network, (2) access management and (3) review and monitoring.

  1. For resilient network infrastructure, there is a need to ensure that one or several components failures will not impact the entire network. The network should be designed with defense in depth using segmentation and redundancy. The segmentation approach makes it resource-intensive and time-consuming for hackers to move between layers. Moreover, redundancy ensures that networks do not rely on single components and in case of failure of certain components; the remaining network can perform the intended task. For instance, if a hacker shuts down one antenna, the antenna from another supplier at a different location would able to pick up the slack of the compromised location. In the UK, the regulation requires cellular operators to use two different suppliers in network infrastructure and Nokia and Ericsson are supplying a large share of 5G components. 
  2. Access management is critical to manage platform risks and to secure networks, the cellular company must regulate and monitor supplier access to networks. For instance, the patching process or software update mechanism should be closely monitored. Access management involves supervising suppliers when working on the network and limiting time and resource access for suppliers. The use of proper protocols and procedures would ensure the integrity and availability of the network.
  3. Reviewing and testing is critical to safeguard 5G assets and this protects against accidental or backdoor vulnerabilities. Moreover, the monitoring of network activity helps to identify unusual behaviour and highlight malicious activity. The virtualisation of 5G provides an opportunity for superior testing and monitoring from multiple dimensions rather than a single inferior product.  

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