Making 5G Secure

When 4G cellular service was introduced in 2010, it brought the fastest wireless speeds commercially available. 5G, the next-generation network now being rolled out, is 100 times faster than 4G and can support diverse requirements for latency, throughput, capacity and availability, enabling brand new services for smart cities, smart homes, wearables, connected cars, health care services and a plethora of IoT functions.

5G will also enable entirely new applications in virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence (AI), while also letting users stream higher quality video and engage in real-time multiplayer gaming. In health care, 5G will help with the faster transfer of large patient files, remote surgery and remote patient monitoring via IoT devices, and enable the capture and sharing of our personal data.

But there is a potential downside, too. The IoT is a major avenue for cyberattacks and since 5G will enable IoT networks to be much larger, with a vastly increased quantity of devices and an elevated use of the cloud, we can reasonably expect to have to defend against more security threats and broader, multifaceted attack possibilities.

Fortunately, security is a top architectural priority for 5G developers. For starters, all data sent over 5G is encrypted, building on the strong security characteristics that already exist in the 4G system that was designed to protect the voice, video and data traffic being carried. Devices and the network will mutually authenticate each other and use integrity-protected signaling. This makes it extremely difficult for an unauthorized party to decrypt and read the information that is communicated over the air.

During the early stages of 5G, vulnerabilities found in 3G and 4G were addressed where networks could be spoofed and sent false signaling messages to obtain the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) and location of a device and use this to intercept voice calls and text messages.

New Security Requirements

A distinct key feature of the 5G system architecture is network slicing, which precisely addresses the needs of specific groups and even individual customers. Current one-size-fits-all networks cannot achieve this. Because 5G networks can be organized into these unique slices, each virtual network slice requires security capabilities based on the needs of different usage scenarios. As potential attack vectors increase, each network slice needs device authentication ensuring that devices intended for one network slice are approved but prevented from running on another slice.

5G also will provide a new set of visibility and control elements to help operators protect their networks and customers. One example is the use of application level probes that travel through the network to get a clear picture of how an application is behaving.

Compared to 4G, 5G is a more secure standard with more stringent testing requirements and security obligations. The technical specification for the 5G security architecture and procedures defines the security features and mechanisms for the 5G system, and the security procedures performed within the 5G system, including 5G New Radio (NR) and the global standard for a unified, more capable 5G wireless air interface.

Defense teams also will employ anomaly detection using packet capture, big data analysis and machine learning to identify threats not spotted by other protective measures. When embedded into network switches and routers it turns those devices into security sensors.

5G offers many benefits, such as enhanced speed and performance, lower latency and better efficiency. As with all new technology, there are security and privacy risks. But rest assured, considerable steps and countermeasures are in place to make the 5G system a trustworthy platform to inspire consumer’s confidence.

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