Cyber Risks and Opportunities of 5G Networks

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5G holds the potential for massive immersion of technology into the lives of people and businesses. It is an evolution of technology which could allow bandwidth for 50 billion smart devices, driving towards a world where everything that computes will be connected.  Such transformative technology opens great opportunities, but comes with 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 our bodies.  These will have access to our personal events, conditions, and provide new experiences of convenience, entertainment, and productivity; all of which, have 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 increasing data speeds potentially 30 to even 100 times faster, shorten the latency for responsiveness, and perhaps most importantly scale 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 in just about every field imaginable will connect and share data.  In many ways, it 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 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, 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 other 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 benefit, I must understand that the vehicle is engineered in a way so it has the ability to sense immediate surroundings, accelerate, brake, and turn.  This is fine at a slow speed when I want to squeeze into an advantageous parking spot, but not so good for passenger safety if a malicious attacker takes control while traveling down 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 emerging IoT devices, represent the greatest risk. The Internet of Things will bring new levels of convenience, automation, awareness, entertainment, and productivity to people’s lives.  However, in the wrong hands, such connected smart devices we come to treasure, 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 would 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 not upgraded connectivity capabilities on purpose.  Smart devices in ICS facilities could in theory be exploited, but it is more likely more sophistical control computers like servers and PC’s would be targeted.

As 5G begins to roll-out, in the 2018 to 2020 timeframe, I think it will be the consumer devices which will hold the greatest risks.  I predict it will be the transportation, healthcare, and drone industries that will be the source of the most talked about abuses to security, privacy and safety.

Here are some examples where benefits accompany risks:

Scenario: 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, actually cause a serious accident.

Scenario: 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 to 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.

Scenario: 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, support narcotics smuggling, and 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 which 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 PC’s, servers, and smartphones.  Most lack the power and speed to run sophisticated feature-rich security solutions.  So, more emphasis will need to be placed in other areas, such as hardware, networks, application validation, and back-end infrastructures to compensate.

Establishing trust as a foundation in 5G begins now

Cooperation among technology leaders to define robust standards which 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 proposition for IoT 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 end-users more oversight, default anonymity, and choice, must be included in product and software designs.  Systems which may represent a threat to the life-safety of people 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 compensate for the risks.

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

How will top technology leaders play a role in supporting security, safety, and privacy?

Technology innovation and influence must occur in 3 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 which will handle the vast amounts of data from those devices.
  2. Influence industry best practices and collaboration to establish robust frameworks and technology standards which implement strong security, safety, and privacy principles.  Intel’s automotive team is a great example where 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 being used.  These solutions will be tailored to run within the potentially constrained computing environments for smaller or fixed-function devices as well as on the manageability infrastructure which provides oversight to groups of systems.

In the end, 5G is coming and it brings with it tremendous advancements to connect more and smaller devices to our electronic ecosystem.  This 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.

Published on Categories SecurityTags , ,
Matthew Rosenquist

About Matthew Rosenquist

Matthew Rosenquist is a Cybersecurity Strategist for Intel Corp and benefits from 20+ years in the field of security. He specializes in strategy, measuring value, and developing cost effective capabilities and organizations which deliver optimal levels of security. Matthew helped with the formation of the Intel Security Group, an industry leading organization bringing together security across hardware, firmware, software and services. An outspoken advocate of cybersecurity, he strives to advance the industry and his guidance can be heard at conferences, and found in whitepapers, articles, and blogs.