Miniatur 5G with a net over it
#Mobile devices

The vulnerabilities of an insecure 5G

Global Trends
6 Mins.

5G network technology promises to revolutionize connectivity for everything, from smart cities and utilities, to connected cars and the emergency services. Amid all the excitement, critical security questions must not be overlooked

For many industries, having relied on either rolling out broad Wi-Fi or tolerating slow mobile connectivity, the rollout of 5G technology offers the potential to transform both internal operations and customer-facing services.

5G will dramatically increase connectivity speed, powering the fast transfer of complex information and potentially hitting a high data rate of over 10 gigabits per second, tens of times faster than 4G. Equally, it offers the reduced latency essential for reliable connectivity, and high system capacity as future networks connect billions of new objects.

By 2025, according to GSMA, the mobile industry association, there could be 1.7 billion global 5G connections, which equals 19% global market penetration.

“In the future, with key services relying on 5G, the potential is high for hackers to cause severe disruption“

The stages of 5G development

Person controls their smart home by mobile
5G will precipitate the connection of more and more domestic and enterprise devices

The development of 5G has caught the attention of numerous sectors, with deployment expected in several stages.

In many markets, the first stage will see “enhanced mobile broadband” enabling much faster consumer mobile connections. Online and high street retailers are expected to use these advancements to underpin highly immersive virtual and augmented reality services.

The second stage is likely to be characterized by an evolution towards the “massive internet of things” (massive IoT). This will precipitate the connection of more and more domestic and enterprise devices, ranging from smart meters and fridges to autonomous vehicles – in essence, supporting basic machine‐to‐machine communications, but on a much larger scale than is currently possible.

Mission-critical IoT

From there, 5G developments are expected to progress towards use in some of the most essential services provided across society. This is being referred to as the “mission-critical internet of things” (MC-IoT) and will speed up connectivity within emergency services, hospitals, police forces, fire and rescue services, and smart cities.

Businesses of all types will also be able to use 5G to enable remote working for everyone, from office personnel to teams of engineers in the field. The scope and potential impact of these developments is clearly enormous. However, it must be remembered that 5G will still take time roll out and demonstrate its potential to industries.

According to Ian Fogg, a VP at mobile analytics firm OpenSignal: “It is true that 5G is coming around a lot more quickly that many had thought. But many of the initial approaches to 5G will address it in its more basic form, for smartphone users and at lower capacity, with high-capacity bands being added later for the more critical and demanding applications, such as industrial automation and connected vehicles.”

5G security vulnerability

It is also the case that as 5G is rolled out, important security questions will arise and require serious consideration. While the upsides of 5G are hugely appealing for businesses and service providers across the globe, its introduction will also present significant risks to organizations that use it, especially those depending ever more on virtualized or cloud-based infrastructure. Part of the vulnerability problem is that the sheer speed of 5G offers great potential to denial of service (DoS) attacks that can overload company networks.

The University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre warned in a recent whitepaper of the importance of getting this right, given the “increasingly diverse set of industry verticals” that the technology must support. “These provide a wide range of business drivers for security – for example, the transport vertical needs reliability, integrity and availability to prevent loss of life.”

Disruption to key services

It’s clear that any failure to properly secure 5G in advance of its introduction could have dire consequences for businesses and public bodies.

The greatest known risk is hackers, be they hostile governments, sophisticated criminals or even tech‐skilled teenagers, accessing systems, switching them off or stealing data. In the future, with key services relying on 5G, the potential is high for hackers to cause severe disruption to hospitals, ambulance services, police forces, and fire services.

Anyone traveling in a self-driving car could also face major safety risks if a hacker takes control of their vehicle. Meanwhile, core utilities, such as gas, electricity and water, could see their networks and supply lines interrupted by targeted DoS attacks. Adjacent to the question of security is the issue of availability. When organizations depend on the 5G network to operate, they need to have a contingency plan should it fail.

As well as mobile network operators ensuring coverage, and users protecting their networks appropriately, regulators will also need to closely examine the best ways to address the vulnerability and security issues thrown up by 5G, especially given the billions of devices set to be newly connected to the web.

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