‘I know there’s something in people’s pockets that I have designed’

5 Jun 2020

Dr Silke Holtmanns. Image: AdaptiveMobile Security

Silke Holtmanns is the head of 5G security research at AdaptiveMobile Security, with more than 20 years of telecoms security experience.

One of the most exciting parts of working in tech can often be seeing how far your work can reach. For Silke Holtmanns, she’s able to look at any group of people and know that something she designed is in their mobile phone.

Holtmanns is the head of 5G security research at cyber telecoms operator AdaptiveMobile Security. “In my role, I design countermeasures based on analysis of attacks on core mobile phone networks or programme these attacks in labs to investigate how attackers can potentially breach networks,” she said.

“These attackers can extract data such as location of subscribers, intercept calls and data, use extracted information for fraud and launch denial of service attacks from the mobile core network. Defending mobile network subscribers and figuring out how to stop the attackers is my mission.”

While Holtmanns started studying computer science and mathematics at the University of Paderborn in Germany, she decided to follow her passion and switch to full mathematics. “I know it’s not everyone’s first choice, but for me, it’s such a beautiful topic. I have a real passion for maths, it helps us to understand more fully how the world works.”

Holtmanns said learning something new every day is now what drives her at work. “Every single day I discover a new piece of the puzzle and this is the most interesting thing about my line of work. I’m never satisfied to stand still and watch the clock waiting for the workday to end. I really need a challenge to understand new technologies, vulnerabilities, networks and how they fit together with the old and how they relate and interoperate.

“It’s very rewarding to know that my ideas and inventions are actually in mobile phones and mobile networks and are currently being used to protect millions of people in the world. When I look around a crowded room (pre Covid-19, when we had crowded rooms),  I know that there is something in people’s pockets that I have designed, that is in every 4G phone in the world. That’s pretty cool.”

The next big challenge for 5G networks

Following her undergraduate studies, she continued with a PhD in mathematics and computer science, which led to her first job with a Swedish mobile infrastructure vendor. During her career, Holtmanns also worked as a security specialist for Nokia Bell Labs, before taking up her current role with AdaptiveMobile Security earlier this year.

She said she remembers back when she finished high school and got her first job, the only person with a mobile phone was the CEO of the company, which was “a suitcase-sized phone for his car”. A lot has changed in the telecoms industry since then.

“The most important change is that the industry has moved from a very closed, specialised environment to become more of an IT system environment,” she said. “Nowadays, mobile networks are more like huge IT systems with some specialised hardware and underlying functionalities. So that has changed substantially and will continue to change even more with 5G as we are seeing the opening up of networks.”

‘The information control in 5G is very important and is the next big challenge’

However, she noted that there is plenty within the telecoms industry that still needs to change. “There are some telcos and vendors that are well established and stuck in rut when it comes to transformation of services. They can be a little bit siloed and separate to the rest of the world,” she said.

“There is a cultural change needed to support faster and more flexible transformation, especially over the next couple of years with the roll-out of 5G networks. The whole industry needs to move to keep up with the pace of global technological advances to provide secure services to companies and users.”

Holtmanns believes the future of telecoms will go more into IT systems, including integrating threat intelligence and protection measures in these systems. “This integration will become more and more important as we see a growing number of third parties and verticals plugging into mobile networks,” she said.

“The next question is how to secure those networks so that there are no accidentals back doors left open, through which service partner or user data information could be leaked. The information control in 5G is very important and is the next big challenge. Not only do we have to evolve the network securely with existing partners but also plug in the service provider – but we need to plug them in securely.”

‘Keep the keyboard in your hand’

Holtmanns recalled an important memory as a woman in STEM when she was a PhD student and teaching tutorials in maths for computer science undergraduates.

“When I turned up to teach my very first group of computer science students, it was a class of older male students. As I entered the room, they greeted me by informing me that I was in the wrong classroom and that the primary teaching students were scheduled in the classroom next door. When I explained that I was in fact teaching the mathematics class, they quickly realised their mistake.

“It’s a memory from a long time ago but it always reminds me of how important it is to make sure you don’t let people put you in a box. You can be a programmer, software developer or a hacker while simultaneously loving baking, oil painting or even martial arts. Doing one does not stop you from enjoying the other.”

Offering further advice to other women in tech, she said: “Make sure to keep the keyboard in your hand. I mean that physically.

“Even if it takes a touch longer, don’t give it away. You do the typing, you do the clicking, or you might miss something and will not learn the tricks of trade. It has been essential in my own career to date.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic