As the fifth-generation wireless network, commonly known as 5G, becomes more readily available worldwide, cybersecurity experts and others become increasingly concerned about protecting it from hackers and other threats. Their combined efforts encompass 5G network security, and it can involve everything from regulatory compliance to software updates and access control.
Here’s a closer look at considerations for creating a secure and reliable 5G network.
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5G security architecture
5G network security architecture relates to the technologies and techniques required to meet a company or user’s performance needs while maintaining appropriate security.
One solution IT professionals often explore when planning their network security architectures is network slicing. This approach creates virtualized networks that companies or other customers use for traffic. This type of segmentation simplifies scalability and could limit cyberattack ramifications.
In addition to securing each segment, people must prioritize 5G security at the network’s core. Considering how to authenticate each user and their respective sessions is a good starting point.
Device and hardware security
From there, those overseeing network security must consider device-level safeguards. Monitoring tools can protect the infrastructure from widespread attacks. Some products use artificial intelligence (AI) to assess what constitutes normal traffic and flag administrators when the activity seems strange.
Security architecture for the 5G network also involves keeping hardware and other physical assets safe from unauthorized access. 5G towers have been frequent vandalism targets over the last several years. People who don’t understand the technology or believe it’s dangerous are often the perpetrators.
5G architecture cannot be built with a one-and-done approach. An initial plan is essential, but people must always treat those intentions as subject to change over time. Companies that scale their networks will almost certainly strengthen their security architecture. Relatedly, people should consider if new products for improving 5G architectures could improve their cyberattack preparedness.
Security features of 5G networks
Securing the 5G network requires taking a layered approach to stop intrusions. Some optimal features include next-generation access control, vendor vetting, ongoing training, and regular software updates.
Next-generation access control
Although many networks still use traditional passwords for access control, forward-thinking organizations have begun exploring other options. After all, many people reuse their passwords or set ones that are easy for others to guess.
Improved options, such as multifactor authentication (MFA) and role-based access control, restrict hackers’ potential reach as well as guarding against internal threats. They also limit how many files or other content authorized users can see on the network.
Maintaining a strong 5G network means determining whether the vendors you work with follow cybersecurity best practices. That’s vital if a 5G vendor handles any of your company’s data.
The important role of vendors in 5G network security is why the European Union has recommended that network operators restrict or prohibit dealings with high-risk suppliers. Taking the time to ask relevant questions and hold vendors accountable can reduce risks for everyone involved.
Ongoing 5G security training
Cybersecurity experts often say that a workplace’s employees are among the weakest links in protecting against cyberattacks. That’s due to numerous reasons. One issue is that people may become frustrated and exhausted if their companies have too many cybersecurity rules to follow. People at all levels of the organization must understand the vital roles they play in keeping the business safe from attacks.
Equipping the workforce requires providing periodic training people can easily apply in their everyday lives and duties. 5G applications are still in the early stages. Thus, as cybersecurity experts and others learn more, they’ll likely have other network safeguards to suggest. That provides great opportunities to renew and refresh employee training on both old and new security concepts.
Regular software updates
Even though 5G networks are still relatively new, many people use tried-and-true options to stay protected. For example, they may install anti-malware tools on their 5G-equipped phones. Relatedly, an organization may use security dashboards that allow network administrators to see all devices connected at any given time and who’s using them.
However, these tools can only work as expected when they’re updated. Cybercriminals often use software vulnerabilities as entry points to the wider network. Plus, as vendors become aware of security flaws, they usually release security patches to address them. Outdated software causes users to miss out on the associated protections of newer offerings.
Challenges and risks of 5G security
Even people’s best efforts to keep 5G networks secure often come with some pitfalls. Some of the biggest challenges and risks that can occur when managing one of these new networks include larger attack surfaces, the new realities of remote work, lack of general understanding, and the inevitable learning curve that comes with it.
A larger attack surface
A Statista report estimates 5.9 billion mobile 5G subscriptions active by 2027. That forecast highlights why many cybersecurity experts warn that the 5G network will provide more areas for hackers to target.
Many industrial decision-makers view the 5G network as essential to their mid- and long-term plans. Cybercriminals love wreaking as much havoc as possible during each attack orchestrated. With everything from cars to corporate quality control systems running on the 5G network, it’s understandable that perpetrators will increasingly target it.
The long-term shift to remote work
The COVID-19 pandemic required many workers to clock in from home for the first time. However, as time passed, many corporate leaders realized there was no need for a swift or complete return to the office once the public health situation became safe enough to warrant it. They often realized people could get as much or more work done remotely and were happier with such arrangements.
However, the remote working environment does require a proactive cybersecurity stance. It can be harder for security teams to verify employees follow best practices and update their devices. Although many aspects of 5G facilitate remote working, others introduce new distributed workforce risks.
A lack of understanding about 5G’s capabilities
If you’ve visited a cellular phone provider’s website or shop lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen 5G-related advertising. However, a 2022 Deloitte study suggests those providers must do more to help customers embrace the 5G network. Two-thirds of research participants said they’d like to know more about what 5G can do. Most admitted they hadn’t seen revolutionary applications enabled by the technology.
Many also said they did the same things on the 5G network as on 4G. That lack of differentiation poses potential network security risks. If people treat 5G as something already familiar, they may be less attuned to safety precautions while using the network.
The inevitable learning curve
Another 5G network security risk stems from how everyone is still learning about the best ways to protect their infrastructure — and which methods hackers will try to infiltrate it. A Nokia representative recently identified security as the top concern for anyone establishing a 5G network. Best practices will keep evolving as people learn more about risks and how to reduce them.
Others have raised concerns about how misconfigurations could increase the risks associated with 5G networks. People can reduce such problems by hiring professionals with strong network security and architecture backgrounds. Still, mistakes are always possible.
Who is responsible for securing 5G networks?
Network security is a responsibility shared among multiple parties, including:
- Regulatory and standards-creation authorities
- Telecommunications operators
- Security vendors
- Individual users and businesses
All 5G operators in the United States have been the targets of hacks in 2023. That fact underscores the need for constant vigilance and ongoing collaboration between relevant parties.
Emerging trends in 5G security
It’s becoming more common for people to use advanced technologies to support 5G network security. For example, advanced algorithms can help teams triage potential threats and warn them of activity that warrants immediate attention.
Another option is to use digital twins for better 5G network planning. That approach can help people envision the effects of various decisions on security and performance.
One real-life example comes from California Polytechnic State University. A digital twin will help people understand how users benefit from the network and keep it performing well.
Tracking trends like these will help people protect networks as threats evolve.
Bottom line: Prioritizing 5G network security
5G network security must remain a priority, regardless of your architecture’s extensiveness or typical uses. This overview introduces you to some existing best practices and risks, but you must remain educated about new developments and respond to them proactively.