How Safe is 5G (Like Really)?

By NIIT Editorial

Published on 31/12/2020

5 minutes

Every second 127 new devices are connected to the fabric we conveniently refer to as the Internet of Things. If the number holds, then 2020 saw the installation of 30 billion IoT devices worldwide. The activation of such a vast number of devices makes activating the 5G ecosystem a necessary evil, one that drags its baggage of cyber threats in its wake. 


An already pervasive line of security threats known to experts includes data leaks, network spoofing, social engineering, spyware, ransomware, and phishing. But that is by no means an end of the line, with many analysts believing 5G could spell the double-trouble for cybersecurity.


5G Security - What We Know So Far


Serious, unguarded openings exist in the 5G infrastructure as demonstrated by whistleblowers. At one Black Hat security conference, ethical hackers were able to track user location and consequently launch adversarial attacks. In another trial at the US university of Iowa, researchers exposed 11 critical 5G inadequacies that could potentially expose devices to DDoS attacks and usurping control of paging channels deployed to send emergency alerts. 


Securing 5G frontiers is a shared responsibility between all the stakeholders at the table. This includes everyone from hardware manufacturers to enterprise software developers. Recognizing the consequences of a systemic 5G failure has needs to dawn on decision-makers. 5G network architecture must be secured considering the inevitability that 5G will one day run everything from smart cities to traffic grids.


Planning for an Imperfect Network Switch


The core infrastructure for mobile networks operates separately from each other so they do not affect related services in times of failure. For instance, if mobile data or the SMS feature gets disabled, it affect other services located on that network only partially. But in the case of 5G, such a failure could pervade not only one but multiple networks. 


Be that as it may, when 5G eventually falters and is disrupted for some reason, there can be an engineering protocol that switches devices to a 4G/3G frequency. But this entails significant risks. For now, mobile operators have little assurance to offer that such a sporadic transfer of connections will not be without its downsides. 


There is also the finger-pointing between countries like the US and the UK on one hand and 5G hardware manufacturer Huawei on the other. Accusations on the latter confiding with the Chinese authorities have made policymakers reconsider their stance on the safety of the 5G infrastructure. 


Meanwhile, certifying bodies like 3GPP ETSI and IETF are embroiled in the task of creating 5G benchmarks that enterprises can adhere to.


5G Security - A Shared Responsibility


Each successive generation of technology provides better security than the last. It is a given. Network slicing, a process by which 5G network layers can be bifurcated into isolated stacks as per the use case, can add more security. The isolated layers practically function as private rooms. 


Theoretically, it means if there is a hack in the public slices of a mobile operator, say Verizon, the private layers sliced and separated from the public ones will continue to work.   


It would be the shared responsibility of standard creating bodies to formulate 5G protocols and world governments to implement the same. While enterprises broadcast their data through new networks, mobile network operators should engineer ongoing performance assessment cycles and aim for improvements. 


Only in such an environment can end-to-end security be ensured. 


Final Thoughts


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