5G technology is fast — I mean, really fast. I didn’t realize just how far ahead of 4G technology it was until I visited a vendor booth at a recent conference. The table was lined with smartphones connecting at different generations of cellular technology, and I was asked to spin a soccer ball. With 5G deployment, I watched the ball spin in near real time. 4G was a few seconds behind.
For most of us, those few seconds of lag time are nothing more than an inconvenience, but in smart cities, it could mean the difference between life and death. Law enforcement and emergency personnel can more quickly communicate and control traffic flow so emergency vehicles can get to an accident or crime scene faster, for example. Through the huge amount of data generated by 5G technology, internet of things (IoT) devices can share real-time information about road conditions with smart vehicles, such as self-driving cars, that can then adjust to react appropriately.
There’s no doubt that 5G deployment is going to be a game changer when it comes to physical security in smart cities. But anything connected to the internet — anything that is going to generate data in ways we’ve not seen before — is going to create cybersecurity and data privacy concerns.
As faster connections come online and smart becomes the standard operating practice for more cities, how do we address the protection of all those endpoints and the privacy of the individuals behind the data production?
Cybersecurity Concerns With 5G Deployment
5G deployment is going to add a lot of new endpoints and IoT devices throughout smart cities — and not just for the reasons you might think, such as faster connections and better technology that will offer better services and improved physical security for citizens. There will also be more endpoints, because 5G will require them.
“Since higher frequencies are utilized in 5G networks, signals don’t travel as far as 4G,” explained Russ Mohr, sales engineer and Apple evangelist with MobileIron, in an email interview. The result will be carriers deploying many more endpoints (known as small cells) that could be misconfigured and compromised.
“Hackers may find it easier to hide in plain sight in a forest of small cell sites,” said Mohr.
The selling point of 5G deployment — its millisecond speed that will allow for quick decisions and real-time situational reactions — could also be its greatest security vulnerability. Just-in-time applications multiply the risk vector. Take, for example, the rise in successful ransomware attacks in U.S. cities that have brought day-to-day operations to a halt. If a city’s 5G network is infiltrated by external threat actors or even by one disgruntled employee, the entire city could be held hostage. With the additional endpoints of 5G technology, there will be more points of vulnerability for a bad actor to exploit.
Smart cities deploying 5G are going to require an increased IT and cybersecurity workforce that will have to be on call 24/7/365 if the city is going to run smoothly and address threats immediately. But will city budgets be able to meet the staffing demands, or will taxpayers be willing to accept this need in return for the IoT conveniences they’re demanding?
Cybersecurity concerns aside, with more endpoints come more data, at a time when citizens are more aware of data privacy issues. Communities are already trying to come up with ways to address privacy with the amount of data generated on IoT cameras, traffic sensors and other devices. Will they be prepared to address this in higher volumes as data privacy laws are implemented around the country?
Building a Safer 5G Smart City
As 5G becomes standard in cities, and as cities themselves become more dependent on the IoT and digital transformation, city leaders will be forced to rethink their approach to security. Cybersecurity will have to become a higher priority, but there will also need to be a shift in the cybersecurity systems and tools used by municipalities. Traditional firewalls and antivirus software aren’t going to work in a network with millions of endpoints and data moving through the cloud.
Better security hygiene is a starting point for better cybersecurity in a faster-connecting world. Mohr suggested leveraging encryption, especially when it comes to transmitting data.
“This is often overlooked when it comes to internal app development, work often done by third-party contractors,” he added. “You can’t simply develop an app and let it remain stagnant for years.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can be used to better detect exploits and potential threats to the network, because these technologies work in volumes and speeds humans that can’t. Smart cities using 5G should also “follow best practices outlined by the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s Cybersecurity Framework,” recommended Susan Miller, executive editor at GCN. Miller also pointed out the need for government regulation to address risk brought about by faster technologies, since this can improve monitoring and spot trends before they become dangerous.
5G is going to revolutionize smart cities, and citizens will see the advantages in many ways, particularly in regard to our safety and well-being. But with any internet connectivity comes cyber risk and bad actors who can and will create unknown havoc. As cities become smarter and connections become faster, communities will have to make sure cybersecurity systems keep up.