Cybersecurity: countering 5G-specific risks

By Scott Birch
PwC whitepaper examines why cybersecurity is key to realising the full benefits of 5G networks...

Although the roll-out of faster, higher-bandwidth 5G networks is a significant step forward for the world, as it fundamentally reconceptualises what a communications network looks like; there are growing concerns that the increased prevalence of these networks will open the door for a new range of cybersecurity threats.

A whitepaper from PwC entitled ‘Securing 5G’s future highlights that while the technology will have huge implications on our ability to build and develop smart cities, smart homes, smart transportation networks, smart healthcare systems and 4IR operating models – amongst many other potential uses – that very connectivity increases the potential attack surface for cyber adversaries to exploit.

However, by understanding and countering the risks specific to 5G, companies can build greater resilience and utilise 5G as a powerful force to generate revenues and profits in their businesses, and good in society.

In combination, the technical attributes of 5G means it is capable of achieving speeds approximately 100 times faster than 4G and handling significantly more connections. These advantages are amplified by ultra-low latency — the time it takes to receive a response to a request.

While this may open up a myriad of entertainment possibilities for the average lay-person, the true benefits of these technical attributes will manifest themselves through a range of innovative applications that will shape how people move around, how they work and live, and even how they keep themselves healthy – all powered by AI-enabled personalisation embedded in 5G applications.

“The ability of 5G to deliver on its promise is rooted in its being a software-enabled network that’s operated through distributed digital routers and optimises processing speed and power by relocating operations to the fringe. This contrasts with the ‘hub and spoke’ configuration of previous generations of mobile technology,” the report says.

With more and more companies adopting remote working policies and as telemedicine use increases, the need for a secure 5G network will be key to realising the full potential benefits for customers, businesses, and even entire societies and communities.

“A vital first step towards protecting any network against cyber threats — 5G included — is to understand where vulnerabilities might arise. This is primarily at the points of interconnection, where risks transition from one element of the network to another. With 5G, as with 4G, different companies are often involved on each side of these transitions, meaning a coordinated approach is vital to ensure security is effective from end to end,” the report says.

“The approach needs to be agile, given that technology tools are advancing rapidly, and both companies and cybercriminals seek to use them to their advantage. All participants in the 5G ecosystem — including mobile operators, network vendors, system integrators and end businesses — should agree to identify, profile and assess the health of every component before it’s permitted to connect to the network, and, if appropriate, limit access to the 5G service based on this assessment. 

  1. Zero-trust approach

A robust security posture from end to end, for all devices and software, will help reduce risk exposure across the 5G ecosystem. Having been assessed for their level of security before connecting to the network or resources, devices should only be allowed access to resources based on their need and security ‘health.’  

2. Universal encryption

To minimise the risk of data being compromised or corrupted, telecoms operators and other 5G participants should leverage strong encryption methods for securing the traffic between endpoints and services. This involves applying flexible methodologies that allow the encryption to be strengthened progressively over time as standards and risks evolve. Centralised key management processes will help mitigate ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks, in which an attacker intervenes in a communication between two parties who believe they’re communicating directly with each other. 

3. Orchestration by AI

Machine learning (ML) and AI will have a vital role to play in identifying and mitigating ever-changing risks, providing the speed and accuracy of insight and intelligence needed to manage security policy across hyper-dense machine type communications and ultra-low latency applications. 

The capabilities of AI and ML technologies will see them used throughout the 5G architecture for security orchestration, including such activities as traffic analysis, deep packet inspection (DPI), threat identification and infection isolation. This can be achieved with a strategy grounded in the following elements:

If applied properly, the strategy will help organisations to work collectively to secure the 5G environment, while not overly impacting the ability of each business in the 5G ecosystem to service its customers and interact with partners, the report says.

“A proven way of operationalising this strategy is to adopt an identity-driven model known as a zero-trust architecture (ZTA). This is a comprehensive information and infrastructure security model that addresses the ‘who, what, where, why and how’ when critical data and infrastructure assets are being accessed.

“Under a ZTA, security capabilities are deployed to enforce policy and protect all users, devices, applications and data resources, and the communications traffic between them, regardless of location or connection method,” it explains.


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