How to Prepare for the Coming 5G Security Threats

Over the next few years, the pace of business will accelerate exponentially. 5G will enable the future enterprise technologies everyone is predicting and waiting for: fleets of self-driving delivery trucks, virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and a world of enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) deployments — systems that will define an era that the World Economic Forum termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” But do we understand the 5G security threats to come?

5G will provide super-high data rates, better quality of service and very low latency through dense base station deployments. As a result, we’ll likely depend on 5G far more than we ever did previous communications systems. Factories, businesses and critical infrastructure will all rely on 5G data connectivity, and this technology will transform business models and network infrastructures.

However, it’s important to note that this increased dependency on communications networks will also entail a greater capacity for disaster should they be compromised.

What Are the Greatest 5G Security Threats?

In a paper titled “A Formal Analysis of 5G Authentication,” researchers from ETH Zurich, the University of Lorraine and the University of Dundee warned that 5G could usher in a new era of security threats. In a nutshell, they found that 5G presents new risks because:

  • It’s an immature and insufficiently tested set of technologies;
  • It enables the movement and access of vastly higher quantities of data, and thus broadens attack surfaces; and
  • We will depend on it more than 4G for mission-critical applications.

With the rapid growth and change expected to come, what we don’t know very well may hurt us.

Check the Research

Like 3G and 4G networks, the existing 5G standard employs something called the Authentication and Key Agreement (AKA), which is a system for enabling networks to trust each other. The researchers performed a comprehensive analysis of security issues in the 5G network and discovered that the 5G AKA has at least two major vulnerabilities. First, it enables one malicious user to move usage charges to another user. Second, it’s possible to find nearby phones, which enables tracking of other users.

The 5G standard should be updated as soon as possible to prevent threat actors from exploiting these flaws.

Consider the SOC

Meanwhile, the frontline experts — information security teams, IT security specialists, security operations center (SOC) leaders — should be concerned about 5G because of its unique properties. In the real world, 5G represents higher costs than 4G networks for new equipment, plus unknown costs of integrating 4G and 5G systems. That stresses budgets, and enterprise leaders could put pressure on IT teams to favor 5G rollouts and possibly skimp on addressing security issues in the 5G network — a line item already hard fought for in many organizations.

Also, the higher 5G data throughput interfaces a vastly larger attack surface with more mission-critical applications. There are more potential entry points, and the consequences of an attack are proportionally greater. Enabled by 5G, the number of IoT devices alone is expected to rise from 7 billion today to 21.5 billion by 2025, according to IoT Analytics. This will enlarge the attack surface for such devices to an unimaginable size, and the capacity for distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, cryptojacking and other compromises could increase exponentially.

How to Cultivate a 5G State of Mind

Although 5G is new and will usher in entirely new models for how things get done, it must be built on a solid foundation of network security. Many of the risks will lie in the scale and type of new 5G-enabled categories of infrastructure. IoT security is a known problem with known solutions. 5G will magnify whatever insecurity exists in processes, procedures and policies for IoT, and protections must scale up in proportion.

5G will enable entirely new services, and the costs for securing these services must be accounted for. 5G will be expensive, the new services will be expensive and the security to make it all happen will also be expensive. Don’t skimp on one area to pay for the other; deploy 5G securely or don’t deploy it at all.

Pressure to rush headlong into 5G deployments will come from every direction. But smart deployments will go slowly, building the foundation in advance of the new infrastructure with endpoint management solutions powered by artificial intelligence that can monitor the expanding attack surface as no human can do alone.

You’ll continue to hear about how much more secure 5G is than 4G. Don’t let the hype and excitement breed complacency. 5G is a brave new world for business, but also for threat actors. Although 5G represents a plethora of possibilities, we must build the future on a familiar foundation of secure networks and best practices. Improve existing networks first, and roll out individual 5G services over time and with care to make the best of the coming revolution.

I write a popular weekly column for Computerworld, contribute news analysis pieces for Fast Company, and also write...