5G Networks Pose Cyber Risks, Opportunities

5G security

Fifth-generation networking (5G) holds the potential for a massive immersion of technology into the lives of people and businesses. It is an evolution of technology that could allow enough bandwidth for 50 billion smart devices, driving toward a world in which everything that computes will be connected. Such transformative technology opens great opportunities, but also presents new unimaginable risks. The scalability of improved speed, connections, and responsiveness will fuel unprecedented growth of data from more sensors and devices in our cities, homes, vehicles, and close to or within our bodies. These devices will have access to our personal events and conditions, and will provide new experiences of convenience, entertainment, and productivity—all of which pose amplified security, safety, and privacy concerns.

The fifth generation of networking represents an important technology enabling the next wave of computing devices to be connected for the benefit of users. Upcoming 5G networks are designed to be vastly superior to our current 4G LTE mobile networks by potentially increasing data speeds from 30 to even 100 times, shortening the latency for responsiveness, and perhaps most important scaling to connect the billions of devices anticipated in the coming years. Cars, smart clothing, ingestible health sensors, home appliances, drones, street signs, light posts, industrial equipment, and many more items in just about every field imaginable will connect and share data.

In many ways, this movement will bring computing to a more personal level. The wearables, embedded sensors, smart vehicles, home automation, individualized healthcare and monitoring, and environment-aware entertainment devices will connect communities and enrich lives. Devices will more easily and reliably share information, and work together to enhance our convenience, productivity, safety, health, and interpersonal connections with the people we care about. But such powerful tools can also be leveraged by those with malice or insensitivity.

We must protect our technology, data, and privacy from those who intend or would do us harm. The value of 5G networks and devices must include aspects of security, trust, and privacy. We will embrace technology that vastly improves the way we communicate and interact with the world, and at the same time act responsibly to support the establishment of protections for systems and people.

As devices become more intelligent and capable, we trust them to complete physical-world assigned tasks. In doing so, people relinquish a certain amount of control. In most cases this is positive, and could drive sweeping benefits, enhance productivity, and promote safety. Having a smart car parallel park for me is much safer than my bumbling attempts to do the same. I have never really mastered the task, which results in delaying traffic, higher stress levels, and eventually higher insurance rates due to the small dents I will likely cause. So having a car respond to my request to park, measure the space and quickly maneuver the vehicle safely into the spot is nothing short of blissful magic for those like me who normally drive in endless circles waiting for an easier parking spot. But to gain such a benefit, I must understand that the vehicle is engineered in a way that it has the ability to sense immediate surroundings, accelerate, brake, and turn. This is fine at a slow speeds such as parking, but not so good for passenger safety if a malicious attacker takes control while driving on the highway. In the end, technology is a tool. As 5G rapidly advances the connectivity and capabilities to open the possibilities of a better world, we cannot be ignorant or complacent when it comes to the risks and necessary security.


The biggest risks of 5G networks

Safety and privacy, specifically for the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), represent the greatest risk to 5G. The IoT will bring new levels of convenience, automation, awareness, entertainment, and productivity to people’s lives. However, in the wrong hands, such connected smart devices may be turned into tools to undermine our security, invade our privacy, and be misused to become a safety risk.

Some would argue industrial controls hold the greatest risk. But I challenge such positions. Industrial control systems (ICS) have long been in place in our power plants, water treatment, and chemical facilities. Over time these systems gradually get connected to the Internet, but in my opinion the introduction of 5G is not terribly important in this space from a risk perspective. ICS operators have recognized the risks and realize they have been under attack for years. To compensate, they have tried to limit the exposure of these systems and in many cases have not upgraded connectivity on purpose. Smart devices in ICS facilities could in theory be exploited, but more likely targets are sophisticated control systems such as servers and PCs.

As 5G begins to roll out, we expect in 2018–2020, I think consumer devices will hold the greatest risks. I predict the transportation, healthcare, and drone industries will be the most talked about areas for abuses to security, privacy and safety.

Here are some examples of benefits accompanying risks:

Automobiles/autonomous vehicles. Next-generation automobiles and public transportation can use 5G networks to communicate with other vehicles and road sensors to avoid collisions, shorten travel times, and improve fuel economy. But under the control of a malicious attacker, such vehicles may slow the flow of traffic or, even worse, cause a serious crash.

Healthcare. Health monitors can enhance fitness, warn of impending medical conditions, summon help when the user is unable, assist doctors in fine-tuning medications, and aid researchers in finding patterns across dispersed groups for improved treatments for some of the most severe chronic conditions. But such power can also be abused. Personal privacy can be undermined and tampering with data can cause an opposite effect—with potentially serious consequences for patients under medical care.

Drones. Drones are rapidly being adopted to extend the reach of a variety of services and capabilities. They deliver medicines quickly over difficult terrain, assist with the detection and fighting of forest fires, explore hazardous environments, conduct military missions in dangerous zones, give artists new capabilities to capture expressive viewpoints, and may become the workhorse for the rapid package-delivery service of the future. Conversely, they are a risk to passenger planes during takeoff and landing, they have impeded firefighting efforts, could be used as weapons of terror, be a hazard during social protests, and support narcotics smuggling. We have already seen how they can be a nuisance to privacy when watching people in what would normally be considered personal settings.


Securing 5G devices

Users, devices, software, networks, and back-end infrastructures must all play a role to improve the security of 5G devices. The improved scalability of connectivity allows for a greater number of devices to communicate and results in the generation of much more data. The devices, applications, and data form a chain that must be protected. The problem is similar to the challenges we currently face with the Internet, just amplified to a much larger scale. Emerging IoT devices represent a new challenge, as they are not as powerful and capable of defending themselves as PCs, servers, and smartphones. Most lack the power and speed to run sophisticated feature-rich security solutions. To compensate, more emphasis will need to be placed in areas such as hardware, networks, application validation, and back-end infrastructures.


Establishing trust begins now

Cooperation among technology leaders to define robust standards that embed aspects for stronger security, improved privacy, and greater controls for life safety–related systems is imperative. If security is not proactively addressed, the value of IoT devices on 5G may be undermined by an erosion of the appeal and adoption by customers.

Trust is hugely important. Security must be designed into the 5G standards as part of the foundation, especially when considering its use in IoT connectivity. Privacy aspects, to give users more oversight, default anonymity, and choice, must be included in product and software designs. Systems that may represent a threat to people’s safety should possess elevated levels of security, administration, and control. As consumers embrace technology such as automated transportation and medical management systems, the level of trust must rise to offset the risks.

The industry has reached a point at which security can be woven into the fabric, rather than suffer as a bolted-on afterthought. Leaders in technology must work together now to establish trust in the foundations and uses of 5G. Consumers must do their part and be vocal about their expectations. The demand for security is a critical driver for the delivery by suppliers who want to be competitive and serve their customers.


How can technology leaders play a role?

Technology innovation and influence must occur in three areas to support 5G security, safety, and privacy.

  1. Develop architectures and platforms to embed security and trust into the foundations of 5G connected devices and the back-end infrastructures that will handle the vast amounts of data from those devices.
  2. Influence industry best practices and collaboration to establish robust frameworks and technology standards that implement strong security, safety, and privacy principles. McAfee’s automotive team is a great example: Security recommendations and an industry consortium are driving the development of best practices.
  3. Deliver best-in-class security software solutions to protect from rapidly evolving threats on devices and in applications. Software has the greatest flexibility to attune to new threats and the risk appetite of how devices are used. These solutions will be tailored to run within potentially constrained computing environments for small or fixed-function devices as well as on the manageability infrastructure that provides oversight to groups of systems.

5G is coming and brings with it tremendous advancements to connect more and smaller devices to our electronic ecosystem. This ability opens unforeseen opportunities as well as risks. To reap the benefits and minimize the risks, technology leaders and security professionals must work in concert now to make the foundations and subsequent implementations of 5G networking safe, private, and secure.


Interested in more?  Follow me on Twitter (@Matt_Rosenquist) and LinkedIn to hear insights and what is going on in cybersecurity.

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