Six existential threats posed by the future of 5G (Part One)

Last updated: 22 June 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our transition towards an increasingly digital world. Now, thanks to lockdowns and remote working, people are realising, for example that meetings, which once had to be held in person, can be done via video calls equally well. With these discoveries having a positive impact on costs, operations, productivity and even the environment, there will be no going back to whatever we considered ‘normal’ prior to this global event.

It is for this reason that our reliance on connectivity is also growing exponentially. More than ever, we need strong and reliable networks that don’t buckle under increased demand. We need a solution that facilitates ubiquitous connectivity, which is why many operators are pouring more time, money, and effort into getting 5G products and services up and running.

Yet, there are some key concerns that telecommunication providers need to be aware of if they are going to successfully implement this next generation of connectivity, as well as inspire trust in customers. Below, we explore these risk factors in depth and determine what can be done to mitigate the threat moving forward.

  1. Protecting a virtual network infrastructure

One of the most significant changes in network infrastructure when it comes to 5G is that the ‘standalone’ core network is almost exclusively cloud based. Put simply, the foundational technologies 5G will rely on, namely Network Function Virtualisation and Software Defined Networking, will turn many physical network components into software instead.

This move to the virtual brings a variety of new security risks including, danger of cross-contamination, data leakage and the spread of malware – all of which we can bet malicious actors will be waiting to take advantage of. Moreover, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) cannot use the same techniques to protect a virtual network as they could with previous versions that have been largely physical – potentially putting them at even great risk if they are not adequately prepared.

To mitigate this threat, strong encryption of data – and accurate authentication of those given access to it, must be guaranteed by telecom operators, even in the most demanding, performance intensive environments. With measures introduced to safeguard any data travelling across the network, (whether on premises or in the cloud) customers be confident their mobile network provider is helping secure the network to the highest standard.

  1. Working with an unprecedented volume of data

Estimations from the GSMA predict that by 2025, 5G will account for 21% of total mobile connections, with around 1.8 billion users. With almost a third of the global population set to take advantage of the high latency and speeds 5G will provide, we can expect to also see a subsequent surge in the volume of data (both in rest and in transit) travelling through the network.

For telecoms this raises a vital challenge; how to guarantee the security and privacy of more data than they’ve been used to dealing with, while also on a new, virtual network.

This is where machine learning can help – providing MNOs with the guidance, tools and techniques to enable thorough scrutiny of their core systems. With a deep analysis system in place, the telco is able to detect the cyberattack threat level and combat security risks in real time, deploying hunting capabilities around the clock to help telcos’ spot the most advanced threats.

Without these insights, not only does the customer experience suffer but also the potential economic and reputational damage from cyberattacks increases.

  1. Securing millions of new IoT connections

From a device management point of view, 5G will work in a fundamentally different way to previous cellular generations, in that, as well as connecting smartphones, it will also be relied upon to connect over 22 billion IoT devices by 2024. This presents a huge opportunity for telcos, who will be provided with additional revenue streams, if they prove they can adapt to the unfamiliar, fragmented IoT device landscape.

There are, however, important technical challenges for telecom operators embarking on this endeavour – a connected car using 5G, for example, will be using it very differently to a smart meter. MNOs therefore need to apply a much more tailored approach to securing IoT devices than they have with smartphones, which requires careful planning. Attackers are also aware that these companies don’t have as much experience securing these devices to a network, so will be on the hunt to exploit any vulnerabilities that arise.

This begs the question, if there are tens of billions of machines on the network, how can we stop them from being compromised – and how can we trust the data they send?

Well, by using eSIM technology, telcos can help protect the range IoT devices on their network from cyberattacks. These secure, tamper-proof elements are soldered into place – making them ideal for use in objects under severe operating conditions (like heat and vibration).

What’s more, with an eSIM management suite, MNOs can remotely manage subscription profiles on individual devices so that they load, delete and replace them as needed – making sure every device on their network is accounted for.

There can be no doubt that 5G, has already started, and will continue to be, a gamechanger for the telecoms industry. While MNOs should rightly be excited about the new business opportunities this technology will bring to them, the changing skill set needed to protect this new type of network and all the devices it hopes to connect will be a significant challenge. If this is not taken seriously, cybercriminals will be waiting to take advantage of the network vulnerabilities, ultimately reducing trust in the network and deterring customers away from using 5G, an outcome no-one wants.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog series to discover the additional three threats posed by the future of 5G and what will need to be done to secure these.

For more information on building a 5G world we can all trust, see our whitepaper here, or tweet us @ThalesDigiSec with your questions.

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