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5G is the fifth generation of cellular technology for network communications. Mobile phone operators started to deploy it in late 2019 in select cities, and more are being added. Compared to 4G LTE, 5G will have up to 100 times the speed and 10 times less latency. Theoretical speeds for 5G downlinks can go up to 20 Gbps, and 10 Gbps for uplinks. However, real-world speeds will be up to 100 Mbps to download and 50 Mbps to upload. Latency in connecting to the network from a device will typically be 4 milliseconds under ideal conditions, but critical applications such as remote surgery will enjoy latency as low as 1 millisecond.

In addition, 5G will enable many more simultaneous connections to devices in the Internet of Things (IoT), such as sensors in manufacturing plants, industrial control systems in power plants, in-car Wi-Fi, video doorbells, and smart thermostats. But with all these additional connections to IoT devices, the attack surface will increase by an order of magnitude. So we’ll need to increase security with 5G, and we’ll need to build security in by design for these 5G-enabled IoT devices.

Why 5G security will be a challenge

The initial rollout of 5G will create security challenges, some that come from 5G itself and others inherited from existing technology. As an example, for the time being, 5G networks will leverage the infrastructure of the 4G LTE network. Consequently, current 5G is a non-stand-alone radio access network (RAN) deployment that requires a unique security mechanism. Let’s explain: A master eNodeB LTE radio determines if a device, such as an IoT device or smartphone, is 5G compatible. If the device is compatible, the eNodeB creates a key for the device to pass to the gNodeB 5G base station. The device can then access the 5G signal. The issue is that these transmissions between the device and nodes are sent in vulnerable plaintext, which creates an opportunity for further security exploits by hackers. Eventually, a 5G stand-alone RAN deployment will help solve the 5G security threat with security protocols protecting transmissions between core components at the IP, transport, and application layers.

5G will also present challenges based on its underpinnings, which are different from 4G LTE. While older 4G LTE networks have been built mostly on hardware, 5G wireless is based largely on software-defined network (SDN) functions replacing that hardware. At the same time, whereas 4G LTE hardware networks were based on a hub-and-spoke design, which had chokepoints where architects could implement security, SDN-based 5G networks live on a distributed web of digital router connections, whose design intentionally does away with bottlenecks. Consequently, in a 5G network with IoT devices, security will have to be end to end. Additional 5G security challenges also exist:

  • Higher-level network functions have been virtualized.
  • Entire networks are now managed by AI and other software, so whoever controls the software that controls the network also controls the network.
  • Improved bandwidth increases the number of pathways of attack.
  • There are tens of billions of vulnerable IoT devices, which usually don’t have security enabled by default.

Other security concerns posed by 5G

With the increased reliance of 5G networks on software, the opportunities for attackers to find vulnerabilities has also increased. The use of more software has increased the attack surface, created more potential points of entry for attackers, and heightened the chances for major security flaws to be derived from poor development processes.

Along with the increased number of IoT devices comes the potential for a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. For example, from an estimated 7 billion devices in 2018, the population of IoT devices is projected to jump to 21.5 billion by 2025. And this is no mere theoretical concept. These threats have already been actualized—twice. In 2016 and 2018, the Mirai botnet found unsecured IP cameras, Wi-Fi routers, and other IoT devices on the internet and galvanized them into crippling DDoS attacks on the New York Times, Spotify, Reddit, and other prominent websites in the U.S. Overall, it took large parts of the internet offline for hours.

How do you secure 5G?

As with any new technology, vulnerabilities in 5G are to be expected. To help find these vulnerabilities, developers will need an entire suite of security processes and tools in place to conduct tests at all layers of the 5G network.

Fuzz testing is one of the many security testing solutions development organizations should consider. Fuzzing complements other security testing techniques in that it’s designed to find unknown vulnerabilities, whereas others are geared toward published weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Fuzzing is well established as an excellent technique for locating vulnerabilities in software. The basic premise is to deliver intentionally malformed input to the target software and detect failure. Fuzzing is a crucial tool in software vulnerability management, both for organizations that build software and systems and for organizations that use them.

Fuzz testing will be a primary testing technique to find unknown vulnerabilities in 5G systems that might incorporate unique software in the IP, transport, and application layers.

But whatever tools developers use in testing their 5G infrastructure, services, and devices, they won’t be able to address them all on their own. Developers must work closely with 5G network providers to ensure end-to-end security ranging from applications, devices, and services to the IP layer and core cellular infrastructure.

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