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2024 is set to be the year when 5G will earn its stripes. According to Juniper Research, operators will generate $400 billion globally in service revenue from 5G networks in 2024, up from $303 billion in 2023, an outstanding growth of 32% in just one year. And the growth will continue to accelerate. The GSMA projects that 5G penetration will surpass 4G by 2029, driven by massive IoT adoption. Juniper Research also expects more than 360 million 5G-enabled IoT devices will be using public networks by 2028, significantly higher than the 35 million devices expected this year. This remarkable adoption acceleration brings big responsibility for network security teams who will see the heightened risks and threats that are coming to their ‘doorstep’ with the expansion of 5G. So, with the acceleration of 5G, can security teams solely rely on 5G’s security enhancements to protect their networks?

5G brings more security firepower but with limitations

Off the bat, 5G networks are more secure than their legacy predecessors by augmenting proven 4G security mechanisms, with enhancements for encryption, mutual authentication, integrity projection, and privacy.

But despite these advances, 5G’s architectural changes and adaptations create vulnerabilities for hackers to obtain a subscriber’s location, conduct fraud, and leak network-level information, which can all enable subsequent attacks. This is because to provide the flexibility and scalability needed to deliver 5G’s ultra-high speed and low latency services, 5G networks have been architected using the so-called service-based architecture (SBA). SBA allows applications to be deployed using a multitude of different sources and suppliers. This enables 5G networks to be more adaptable and customizable while also enabling benefits such as greater system automation, faster time to market, lower cost of ownership, and increased operational efficiencies. However, the openness and flexibility benefits of SBA can also result in significant vulnerabilities if security is not placed at the center of the network architecture and design.

Threats such as OAuth2.0 security risks, API-based weaknesses, JSON Web Token (JWT)-based vulnerabilities, Slow Read DDoS attacks, HPACK bombs, and stream multiplexing abuse attacks are just a few known areas that hackers can exploit in 5G networks. To this effect, Gartner has again highlighted the importance of 5G security as a key technology that communications service providers needed to prioritize in their latest 2023 Gartner® “Emerging Technology Horizon for Communications” Report. 3GPP 5G standards have included security in the 5G architecture, but in order to secure 5G end-to-end, additional mechanisms are needed to protect arenas adjacent areas, including but not limited to, network slicing, API-enabled functions, and all sorts of interconnect traffic.

For example, a Security Edge Protection Proxy (SEPP) is required to protect the home network and act as a security gateway. Located at the edge of the network, SEPP provides a significant security enhancement by policing 5G Service Based Interfaces (SBI) between the home network and the visited networks. The SEPP is a critical network function for operators to provide a secure interconnection between 5G networks and ensure end-to-end confidentiality and integrity between the source and destination network for all 5G roaming messages. This is particularly important as 5G roaming is expected to grow 900% over the next four years, reaching 500M roamers globally by 2027, according to Juniper Research.

While SEPP provides an added layer of security as mentioned earlier, a firewall is still needed. The firewall can ensure that messages being received are indeed relevant to the service, applicable to the particular subscriber, and consistent with the information being collected from other transactions and technologies such as location, velocity, roaming status and so on. It’s also key to note that for the foreseeable future, roaming will often be provided across multiple technologies include 3G and 4G. Until these legacy networks are sunset, security teams need to ensure that their multi-generational networks are secured with a firewall that can account for the security risks of the different signaling protocols. For instance, 3G networks run on SS7 and SIGTRAN protocols, and 4G relies on Diameter and SIP, which lack built-in security features such as encryption and sender authentication and are more susceptible to certain attacks such as spoofing. A multi-protocol firewall is critical to ensure that relevant data is collected and analyzed for all network types, to mitigate threats across signaling, voice, and messaging.

5G has been heralded as the future of communications services. However, security teams are in a unique position to not only look ahead for emerging security threats, but also make sure that the back door is never left open for hackers to exploit. 5G comes with important advances in network security. However, security teams need to ensure that they have comprehensive protection across 5G, 4G, 3G, and 2G mobile networks, which require additional robust security solutions to defend against new and evolving threats while safeguarding customer security and privacy.

Security - The First Line of Defense

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