What is 5G security? Explaining the security benefits and vulnerabilities of 5G architecture

September 14, 2021  |  Mark Stone

This article was written by an independent guest author.

5G is already transforming and enhancing mobile connectivity.

With its high speeds and low latency, almost all businesses and industries are now in the position to digitize applications and services they couldn’t dream of not long ago. With 5G networks, billions of devices and IoT (the internet of things) are interconnectible — leading to use cases like smart cities, AR/VR on mobile networks, remote medicine and much more. The potential is practically unlimited.

However, the massive potential and almost unlimited connectivity bring about many security challenges. Security capabilities are a critical element for your 5G-ready success.

What risks does 5G introduce? What security enhancements are built in? And what role should managed services play in your 5G security strategy?

Defining 5G security and architecture

Today, the concept of “5G security” lacks an official definition as the technology is still fairly new and evolving.

This is not to say that 5G security does not exist. In fact, security was one of the primary considerations in 5G's development and planning.

When it comes to 5G security, we need to think about it as a balancing act. On one hand, security was built into 5G from the ground up. However, along with the increased bandwidth and speed, a tidal wave of new devices and connections will make managing security much more difficult.

At its core, 5G was built to ensure the reliability of connections. An Ericsson white paper lists five core properties of 5G security: resilience, communication security, identity management, privacy, and security assurance. According to the document, 5G’s trustworthiness is made possible by a set of security features that were built using system design principles applied with a risk-based mindset.

Delving into the technical details of the 5G security architecture is beyond the scope of this article. But if there is one element that stands out and should be highlighted here, it is the concept of network slicing.

Network slicing allows different networks and services to share the same infrastructure but are isolated and segregated from each other. Network slicing carves out (or slices, as it were) specific types of network traffic to match various use cases — be it enterprise, consumer, IoT or public safety.

5G’s security architecture allows for significant performance benefits and diversity of applications as it leverages network slicing, cloud-based resources, virtualization, and other emerging technologies.

With these additions and changes, however, new security risks and additional attack surfaces must be addressed.

The security risks introduced

Increased attack surface: With millions and even billions more connected devices, 5G makes it possible for larger and more dangerous attacks. Current and future vulnerabilities of the existing internet infrastructure are only exacerbated. The risk of more sophisticated botnets, privacy violations, and faster data extraction can escalate with 5G.

More IoT, more problems: IoT devices are inherently insecure; security is often not built-in by design. Each insecure IoT device on an organization’s networks represents another potential hole that an attacker can expose.

Decreased network visibility: With 5G, our networks will only expand and become more usable by mobile users and devices. This means much more network traffic to manage. But without a robust wide area network (WAN) security solution like Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) in place, companies may not be able to gain the network traffic visibility required to identify abnormalities or attacks.

Increased supply chain and software vulnerabilities: Currently and for the foreseeable future, 5G supply chains are limited. Vulnerabilities exist — particularly as devices are rushed to market — increasing the potential for faulty and insecure components. Compared to traditional mobile networks, 5G is also more reliant on software, which elevates the risk of exploitation of the network infrastructure.

The security enhancements it includes

Beyond network slicing, 5G offers several significant security enhancements compared to its predecessors like 4G and LTE. With these enhancements, organizations are able to reap many benefits. Here we will outline the most prominent enhancements and explain how they can benefit your organization.

First, 5G is more capable of protecting your identity. For the first time, your connection is shielded from rogue devices that may capture phone calls by mimicking cell towers. Your ID with 5G is encrypted.

Plus, a more robust encryption algorithm scrambles the traffic when your voice and data travels from your device to the cell tower. What this means is hackers with powerful computers won’t want to take the time to decrypt your info.

5G also lends itself to more intelligent software and “virtual” hardware. Instead of specialized hardware that could be compromised, your data can be routed through virtual hubs and switches that can be moved or changed quickly if required.

Finally, there’s edge computing — which is all about where data is processed. With traditional or cloud computing, data may have to travel to a server far away. With edge, it’s processed much closer to the source, enabling the ability for improved threat detection.

With these enhancements, you’ll be able to:

  • Quickly and securely enable branch/remote locations to conduct business outside the corporate office
  • Provide mobile users safe access to the internet so they can conduct business remotely
  • Deliver secure access to applications and provide consistent user protection for network alternative deployments  
  • Improve defenses against advanced mobile threats with deep insights
  • Quickly and securely deploy network alternatives, deliver secure access to applications, and provide consistent user experiences
  • Improve productivity by enabling safe mobile access to the internet and supply quick remediation capabilities in the event of a cyber attack

Should your business consider managed services for your 5G security?

One of the biggest reasons for embracing 5G is to boost your business’s innovation so that you can gain a step up on competitors and drive revenue growth. But how can this be achieved without compromising on security?

If 5G is going to be an essential component of your organization’s plans for innovation, deploying the technology effectively and securely will be critical.

Depending on the resources available to your company, managing the transformation to 5G may be overwhelming.

In many cases, turning to managed security services to support your 5G strategy— which includes options like next generation firewalls, secure remote access solutions, secure web gateway, and broader SASE offerings — is the most cost-effective strategy. With a managed security services, you get to work with experts to design and best leverage 5G technologies to their full potential and help protect the flow of critical information from being breached.

Ultimately, this means your business can design and scale solutions with maximum simplicity and minimized risk.

AT&T Cybersecurity can help you get the most out of emerging 5G and current-day mobile technologies through a security-first approach to service design and delivery.

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