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Report: 5G is smart, now it is time to make it secure

The rise of the fifth generation of wireless connectivity (5G) has created an even more promising future for technological advancements. 5G is expected to deliver the high-speed wireless infrastructure that smart vehicles, factories and even cities will rely on to function at their highest capacity. Additionally, it’s estimated that connected, computerized devices will generate half of worldwide traffic during the next five years, not humans, according to an IAM report.

The promise of high-speed wireless connectivity is an exciting one for anyone who uses a mobile or internet-connected device. However, a network needs to be more than just fast—it also needs to be secure, which could be challenging, according to the recent Brookings Institute report, “5G is Smart, Now Let’s Make it Secure.”

The report examined 5G’s offerings, cybersecurity challenges and the needed policy changes to help achieve the 5G promise. Additionally, the report noted that the U.S. prioritizing network security will “both speed up 5G adoption and create a differentiated advantage for U.S. companies at home and abroad.”

How 5G cybersecurity became an issue

There were concerns about 6 years ago that U.S. was falling behind in the global 5G race. Additionally, there were worries that China’s Huawei, the world’s largest network infrastructure supplier, could hide security weaknesses within a wireless infrastructure.

Meanwhile, some domestic wireless network operators installed Huawei equipment despite warnings from the U.S. government about these concerns. The companies that moved forward with Huawei equipment did not have enough cybersecurity and supply-chain risk management capabilities. A potential avenue for cyberattacks was created as these facilities were connected to a national wireless network.

Congress eventually stepped in and banned Huawei equipment in domestic networks. It also appropriated $1.5 billion to help move toward “open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies” and decrease reliance on Huawei.

How do we make 5G networks efficient and secure?

5G wireless networks find themselves in a tricky spot, according to Brookings. They make communications infrastructure more efficient and enhance its capabilities, but at the same time, new security vulnerabilities can pop up that threaten the networks and their users.

The shift from purpose-built hardware, which used to perform network functions, to software helped create one of the initial 5G vulnerabilities. Putting a network on software that runs over general-purpose computers can reduce costs and increase functionalities, but that software also can be hacked.

Network operators developed the Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) protocol to facilitate supplier diversity while assuring components’ interoperability from a growing pool of suppliers. There is also an ORAN working group on network security. While the intentions are good, there are still concerns that Open RAN would only further expose 5G’s security risks and the attack surface would grow.

“It’s not that cybersecurity isn’t being worked on, the shortfalls lie ‘in the seams,’ where cyber risk ownership is ill-defined and underprioritized as new market entrants jockey for position based primarily on function, performance and cost,” the report said.

More oversight is required for 5G

 Despite the growing number of 5G vulnerabilities, there is not much formal oversight of businesses’ 5G implementation or its ORAN protocols, according to Brookings. Meanwhile, networks are currently able to select which security components they plan to deploy. The report argues that “securing the network essential for the ‘smart’ era but built using hackable software from a diverse collection of suppliers should not be a voluntary proposition.”

Instead, there should be a national policy that establishes shared expectations for all 5G networks’ security and behavior.

“Make no mistake about it, 5G wireless networks can usher in a new era of wonderous capabilities that will help consumers, companies, and communities,” the report said. “It can help grow the economy with new exportable products and increased productivity. But failure to assure its security will slow deployment, suppress use case demand signals, impair the ability to protect intellectual property, chill 5G investment, and expose critical infrastructure to increased risk of catastrophic failures.”

Click here to read the full Brookings report.

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