The Connected Future | 5G networks Security

The Connected Future | 5G networks Security

Posted | Updated by Insights team:
Dr. Evangelo Damigos; PhD | Head of Digital Futures Research Desk
  • 5G
  • Sustainable Growth and Tech Trends

Publication | Update: Oct 2020

According to SDxCentral research, telecoms are working to combat cyberattack challenges by securing the edge and architecting their networks to detect breaches through automation.

5G Security Threat Landscape

5G networks support a massive number of connected devices. They enable a huge increase of bandwidth over LTE, and create a threat landscape different from previous networks. Security challenges stem from the very attributes that make 5G such an improvement.

IoT, which is a major component of 5G network architecture, remains a major security risk. IoT devices are one of the most-attacked types of hardware, making up over 78% of malware detection events in communication service provider networks in 2018, according to a report by Nokia.

“If an IoT device today is plugged into the network, and it doesn’t have protection in it, it’s infected in three minutes or less,” said Mary O’Neill, VP of security at Nokia at an MWC Los Angeles press conference in 2019.

High-profile breaches are on the rise. In 2019, publicly-recorded breaches increased by 25%, and the rate of breaches is “exponentially increasing,” according to Wipro’s 2019 State of Cybersecurity Report

The coming 5G networks have the potential to explode vertical industries, enabling the creation of a wide array of new services — all of which will demand new, varying levels of security.

Autonomous Vehicles: The threat of automotive cyberattacks will rise as autonomous vehicles become more widespread. To combat this, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration employs a multi-layered approach to cybersecurity as it approves driver assistance technologies.

Healthcare: In the healthcare field, 5G capabilities will help with faster transfer of large patient files, remote surgery, and remote patient monitoring via IoT devices among other advances. However, those advances are tempered by the need for ever-stronger security. Creating risks that include medical identity theft, invasion of health privacy, and medical data management. The above Wipro report states that the healthcare industry was the target of 48% of data breaches in 2018. It adds that the growth of IoT device use will make dealing with increasing cybersecurity risks more challenging.

Smart homes: 5G-enabled smart homes will require stronger methods of authentication, such as biometric identification, seen in software made by Sensory that uses voice and face recognition, or the bevy of fingerprint-access door locks available at hardware stores. In December 2019, a set of breaches into Amazon’s home camera security product Ring sparked outrage, as hackers were able to access cameras in users’ homes and on their front porches.

In general, IoT devices and sensors will demand more complex authentication to prevent unauthorized access.

5G Security and New Network Architectures

Cloud virtualization technologies such as software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) are thriving in anticipation of 5G networks. However, they too come with new security concerns. Because of their open, flexible, programmable nature, SDN and NFV open up a new avenue of security threats. For example, a network element of an SDN such as the management interfaces could be used to attack the SDN controller or management system and bring down the system.

Research from the Journal of ICT Standardization suggests a multi-pronged approach to 5G security, including trust models, Authentication and Key Agreement (AKA), and an Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP)-based secondary authentication, among others.

The security of 5G network infrastructure must evolve alongside the standard. For example, because 5G networks can be sliced into uniquely purposed slices, each virtual network slice could demand unique security capabilities based on the needs of different usage scenarios. Also, compromised Radio Access Network (RAN)-side 5G devices might present a larger Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) threat.


Vulnerabilities for a network with a distributed 5G core. Source: 5G Americas

Five ways in which 5G networks are more susceptible to cyberattacks

 There are five ways in which 5G networks are more susceptible to cyberattacks than their predecessors, according to the 2019 Brookings report, Why 5G requires new approaches to cybersecurity.

  1. The network has moved away from centralized, hardware-based switching to distributed, software-defined digital routing. Previous networks were hub-and-spoke designs in which everything came to hardware choke points where cyber hygiene could be practiced. In the 5G software defined network, however, that activity is pushed outward to a web of digital routers throughout the network, thus denying the potential for chokepoint inspection and control.
  2. 5G further complicates its cyber vulnerability by virtualizing in software higher-level network functions formerly performed by physical appliances. These activities are based on the common language of Internet Protocol and well-known operating systems. Whether used by nation-states or criminal actors, these standardized building block protocols and systems have proven to be valuable tools for those seeking to do ill.
  3. Even if it were possible to lock down the software vulnerabilities within the network, the network is also being managed by software—often early generation artificial intelligence—that itself can be vulnerable. An attacker that gains control of the software managing the networks can also control the network.
  4. The expansion of bandwidth that makes 5G possible creates additional avenues of attack. Physically, low-cost, short range, small-cell antennas deployed throughout urban areas become new hard targets. Functionally, these cell sites will use 5G’s Dynamic Spectrum Sharing capability in which multiple streams of information share the bandwidth in so-called “slices”—each slice with its own varying degree of cyber risk. When software allows the functions of the network to shift dynamically, cyber protection must also be dynamic rather than relying on a uniform lowest common denominator solution.
  5. The vulnerability is increasing by attaching tens of billions of hackable smart devices- IoT-enabled activities, ranging from public safety things, to battlefield things, to medical things, to transportation things—all of which are both wonderful and uniquely vulnerable.

Microsoft reported that Russian hackers had penetrated run-of-the-mill IoT devices to gain access to networks. From there, hackers discovered further insecure IoT devices into which they could plant exploitation software.

The new capabilities that will be made possible by applications on 5G networks hold tremendous promise, the Brookings report said. While the emphasis is on the connected future, at the same time there must be a strong focus on the security of those connections, devices, and applications, the report said.

Wipro’s report outlined five network components in ensuring 5G security: 

  • A secure edge
  • A secure SDN controller
  • Proactive analytics
  • Hypervisor and container security
  • Security through orchestration

Securing the edge means ensuring real-time detection capabilities at the edge. The network must find and stop breaches before they make it to the core.

Securing the SDN controller means enabling dynamic security protocol through northbound and southbound APIs. Northbound APIs gather intelligence about network activity. Southbound APIs control switches, routers, and firewalls to end attacks as they occur.

Proactive security analytics uses machine learning and AI to detect unusual activity in the network that may indicate a breach. This detection is based on previously-learned network patterns and trends in previous breach attempts.

Hypervisor and container security mean ensuring that virtualized network elements are protected from exfiltration and VM-based attacks that come from east-west and north-south traffic. Network operators should include hypervisor inspection and hardening mechanisms in order to guard against such attacks.

Finally, security through orchestration means taking advantage of 5G’s software-defined, disaggregated architecture, and orchestrating VNFs and NFVs to automatically react in the event of a breach. These functions can alert the orchestrator of a breach. The orchestrator can, in turn, instruct the SDN controller to enact security protocol and control routers and firewalls in order to halt the attack, as well as tighten access control. 

5G Security: Key Takeaways

  1. 5G security is more important than ever, as breaches continue to increase in frequency and volume
  2. IoT devices pose a huge threat to the network
  3. 5G use cases, such as autonomous driving, healthcare devices, and smart homes mean that attackers have more access to personal data than ever
  4. A 5G network must be architectured to evolve to growing security needs
  5. 5G requires end-to-end security that uses its software-defined architecture to automatically detect and mitigate threats



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