The Risks of Cyber Threats to 5G

Communications service providers (CSPs) are migrating decisively to 5G. With 57 5G proposals, GSMA, a company that represents the interests of mobile operators around the world, predicts that 20% of global connections will be in 5G already by 2025. CSPs want to make this step because of the economic potential that 5G will bring for businesses. But even the different markets are looking forward to taking advantage of the benefits of this new technology. From energy to manufacturing, from finance to transport, from health to government, thanks to 5G we will witness the continuous evolution and renewal of processes and behaviors. Generally, when running towards new technologies, safety considerations often remain in the background. 5G makes no difference. We focus on bandwidth, devices, coverage and density … but security? In reality, Cyber ‚Äč‚Äčthreats do not stop representing a huge risk for companies and industries that switch to this technology. Those involved in setting standards play a key role in ensuring network, service and application security. But, as the 5G digital environment opens the door to different types of actors in addition to traditional cellular networks that seek to revolutionize their ecosystem and commercial signal booster, security levels are often no longer sufficient. The promise of 5G will be called into question by the current protection measures of CSPs and their customers. GSMA is focusing its collaborative activities in the sector on key areas of 5G security, and a new document, recently shared with members, contributes to this goal.

For CSPs, the massive increase in network connectivity and the emergence of new types of applications pose higher security risks for both their network and their subscribers. Within the network there is a technological change that moves towards virtualized services, which need new security measures.

When critical infrastructures and sectors such as energy and healthcare are connected to 5G, will we be ready to face the impact of IT threats? Will we be able to protect 5G networks and the companies that use them? Do we have a 5G security reference document ready to help detect and prevent cyber-attacks?

Consider the following IoT examples:

Malware and modern IoT attacks, such as botnet scanning, consume CPU and memory of connected devices, causing a significant delay in service response for time-sensitive applications, less stability and an increased need to reboot devices, with a direct impact on the availability of running services.

Dangerous programs that perform processes not known on an IoT device consume the battery much more than the original life expectancy.

Botnets are worrying, as their denial of service attacks not only have an impact on targeted targets, but may also have an impact on general network services. For example, Mirai malware, known in the news since 2016, had used massive denial of service attacks causing numerous and costly network outages. Botnets are becoming more and more automated and sophisticated, day after day. They have targeted a much wider range of IoT devices such as wireless cameras, routers and digital video recorders, and new variants have recently emerged that have also involved Zyxel storage devices, as happened last March.

These are examples that are also relevant in the current 4G scenario. But with multiple industries connected to 5G, IoT and ultra-reliable low latency IoT, we should be prepared to face a much stronger impact caused by threats and cyber-attacks.

A year ago, GSMA collaborated with a group of CSPs and suppliers to jointly develop a new security reference document, FS.37, which outlines recommendations for detecting and preventing attacks at the level of GPRS Tunneling Protocol User (GTP-U) launched against mobile networks, services and applications. The text provides all the measures to deal with malware and vulnerabilities and the guidelines to implement security functions logically and many other recommendations.

Security automation is critical to correlating threats at source and isolating affected users and devices before botnet attacks can potentially occur, and to enable faster troubleshooting.

The move to 5G brings many opportunities, but also important challenges. With the right IT security technology, networks, services and companies will be ready to face them.