5G: A case of cautious optimism

Snehasish Kar
July 16, 2021

We are all aware of the hype created by the 5G network and the lightning speed on offer. About 40% of the countries are adapting to the new technology.

There are some positives in the 5G technology from the security perspective. There are benefits in terms of anti-spoofing and anti-tracking as well as data encryption before the application of error correction, which makes the attacker unable to use those codes.

However, on the flip side of breakneck data speed is the growing concern over security and privacy. 

Over the last year, many researchers have detected and reported quite a few security vulnerabilities in the 5G framework. The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) has also been made aware of the same.

One of the weaknesses is the continued use of information from broadcast or dedicated channels — which are not encrypted owing to a flaw — to track users. This helps in perpetuating a well-known attack vector called the fake base station attack. Through this method, the target devices are empowered to give the false impression of a cell tower. Attackers can use those to intercept traffic and also manipulate.

Researchers have also demonstrated the potential threat of downgrade attacks. The target can be brought down to 4G/3G/2G networks, and unresolved flaws of these networks applied to snoop on users.

Although GSMA has welcomed the scrutiny, it has allowed the flaws to be exposed even before its full deployment.

“5G is a big step forward on several fronts but won’t provide a full security upgrade until we see pure 5G networks with no legacy tech—so not for another 10 years or more,” says a cybersecurity professional from Germany.

Another potential security aspect that needs deliberation is implementation. This is not only about 5G but new wireless networks as well. If network operators look to cut corners while deploying 5G networks, it will only lead to many new problems. The user will also not know how secure they are.

At the same time, a massive number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices are getting on the 5G bandwagon. It needs to be seen how networks will manage the security of these devices.

One thing can be said with confidence: if appropriately implemented, the security and privacy in 5G will make a real difference in safeguarding users’ privacy from spoofing and tracking threats and attacks.

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