What kind of cybersecurity threats does 5G pose?

18 Jul 2019

Image: © Piman Khrutmuang/Stock.adobe.com

As nations around the globe gear up to roll out 5G technology, should security experts be wary of the associated risks?

Widespread 5G roll-out is now imminent. Brands such as Samsung and Xiaomi already have 5G-enabled smartphone models, and one analyst has suggested that the 5G-enabled iPhone could hit the market next year.

Research by Ericsson suggests that by 2024, global 5G subscriptions could hit 1.9bn. Some early adopters in countries such as the US and Switzerland are getting 5G speeds roughly three times faster than 4G download speeds.

There’s a lot to look forward to – but should we also feel some concern? Certain cohorts are already vociferously opposing 5G roll-out, expressing fears over possible health impacts.

Yet what about from a security perspective? This is something that alarms Dr Darren Williams, CEO and co-founder of BlackFog, who points out that 5G will increase the bandwidth significantly. This will in turn create more end points – everything from your car to your refrigerator will now have access to high-speed connectivity. This, as you can expect, creates more opportunities for attack.

“A lot of people considered – and still to this day, surprisingly – that if they have antivirus software, they’re safe. I think people have a false sense of security with this stuff.”

Not to mention that the more devices are connected, the more data is going to be constantly sent through networks, which could, Williams argues, obfuscate attacks. As well as making connectivity faster than ever, 5G will drastically increase network capacity.

“It’s going to be easier to hide, if you think about it. If you have got a really large pipe and you’ve got a lot of data flowing through it, [an attack] is hard to detect because it’s like a needle in a haystack … Your assessment of these technologies has to be very careful.”

Political tensions

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has emerged as something of a global leader in 5G infrastructure. As such, nations around the world are turning to it for assistance during respective roll-outs, such as the UK, whose plans to go with Huawei for infrastructure installation were unceremoniously leaked from the National Security Council.

Yet some countries, notably the US, have come out in opposition to Huawei’s deep involvement in global 5G infrastructure, arguing that it presents a threat to national security. This same threat is what inspired the infamous entity ban shepherded in earlier this year.

The US has threatened to sever its essential intelligence-sharing relationship with the UK over the revelations, explaining that it couldn’t share intelligence with a country it believed to be compromised from a security perspective.

Huawei maintains that the ban is “cynically timed” and is more about cutting China off at the knees so that the US can gain a lead in the 5G race, which now occupies the cultural void of the space race from the ’60s. Analysts agree the country that wins out in the 5G race will assure its global technological dominance.

“I think the UK is still going to use it for non-core infrastructure,” Williams explains. He points out that if a company wanted to install a backdoor, it could – it would just be a matter of waiting for attention to die down and quietly patching the software therein. “Once you’ve got the hardware in place, it’s going to be really important to monitor the software patches for those cell towers.”

Sectors at risk

In many ways, many of the aforementioned risks of cybersecurity aren’t entirely new, bar that the scope of possible ruin has gotten broader.

Not only will more devices be online, but the new era of 5G will also usher in new, more sensitive applications for the technology. The health sector in particular could be quite vulnerable as the e-health sector grows, due to the value of the data that networks will be processing.

If notable attacks on this sector such as WannaCry are anything to go by, the level of devastation a threat actor can cause when it gets hospitals and medical services in its crosshairs can be devastating.

There will be many benefits to having faster, more efficient broadband with decreased latency. However, the problems it could inspire are nothing to sniff at.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic