Security implications of 5G

The chatter around the halls of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week indicates growing enthusiasm for the Fifth Generation (5G) mobile network. Every ten years or so sees a new generation mobile network. The first generation, 1G, used an analogue signal and was launched in 1981. 2G commenced in 1991 and utilised GSM with data speeds up to 64kbps. 2G introduced SMS and MMS. 3G was launched 10 years later in 2001 and introduced smartphones and 2 Mbps data speeds. 3G was the start of web-based applications and video files. Today we have 4G, launched in 2012 with up to 1 Gbps data speeds and mobile broadband everywhere.

The Fifth Generation (5G) is due for launch in 2020. A localised trial 5G network is planned for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

5G communication speeds could be 1,000 times faster than what we have today with 4G. At 800 Gbps, 33 HD movies could be downloaded in one second. The journey toward 5G has already started. Samsung have already achieved a 5G speed of 7.5Gbps in a stationary environment, and an uninterrupted 1.2 Gbps while travelling at 100 km/h.

Discussions surrounding 5G and it’s enabling technology are underway, and standards are still being finalised. The various parties working on the technology differ in their expectations. However compared to what is available today, we can expect 5G to deliver:
– 1,000 times faster data speeds
– Ultra-low latency of less than a few milliseconds
– Ability to cope with 1,000 times more devices
– 100 times more energy efficient

The Boston Consulting Group estimate that mobile firms will need to invest $4 trillion to get this technology ready.

The challenge is to predict what new security challenges 5G will introduce in 5 years. Several likely security issues are already taking shape:

1. Security challenges from a large number of connected devices. 5G is expected to drive IoT. Adding connectivity for billions of new devices will open new security threats. For example, currently victims of ransomware are locked out of their PC or smartphone. In a 5G environment, ransomware victims could be locked out of their house and car, as well as from many other connected devices.

Multiplying the number of connected devices means more opportunity for attacks such as DDoS.

2. Security challenges from increased data transfer speeds. Higher levels of data transfers implies higher threats of malicious file transfers. With high transfer rates, data exfiltration or large malicious file transfers could more easily escape notice.

3. More severe consequences of security breaches due to the nature of technology enabled by 5G. Remote surgery and driverless cars are two examples of technology which will be enabled by 5G. The consequences of security breaches in these examples could be particularly dire, even life threatening.

It is likely that the operating systems for IoT will settle down to a small number of dominant players, as has happened in the smartphone market. When this market stabilizes we will know more about the specific threats and security tools required for IoT.

It is essential that as 5G standards are refined and ratified, and the technology is developed, that this is done with security in mind. Security must be an integral component of design right from the outset, and then at each subsequent stage of the process. Security policies, protocols and standards must be defined as the technology evolves.

Doing this now will make a massive difference to the security landscape 5 years from now.


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