5G (BeeBright/Shutterstock.com)

5G infrastructure faces foundational threats

A new report identifies three main potential threat vectors to 5G networks: policy and standards, supply chain and 5G systems architecture.

Potential Threat Vectors to 5G Infrastructure,” a report by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, outlines the risks to 5G that threaten national and economic security and could impact other national and global interests.

The 5G Threat Model Working Panel – created as part of the National Strategy to Secure 5G to assess risks and vulnerabilities to 5G infrastructure -- first reviewed existing work to find and compile an aggregated list of known and potential threats.  The panel then identified and developed sample scenarios of where 5G may be adopted, and assessed the associated risks to 5G core technologies.

The foundation of 5G infrastructure is open, transparent and consensus-driven policies and standards, which will drive the design and architecture of new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, edge computing and telemedicine. “It is critical that international standards and policies are open, transparent, and consensus driven,” the report states.

Within the threats to policies and standards category are two sub-threat vectors: open standards and optional controls. If standards are not open, they may include unique, untrusted technologies and equipment, and such propriety tech could limit competition and interoperability.

Not implementing optional security controls could also be detrimental, the report adds, because that could make networks more susceptible to cyberattacks.

“Nation states may attempt to exert undue influence on standards that benefit their proprietary technologies and limit customers’ choices to use other equipment or software,” according to the report. “There are also risks associated with the development of standards, where standard bodies may develop optional controls, which are not implemented by operators. By not implementing these subjective security measures, operators could introduce gaps in the network and open the door for malicious threat actors.”

The second vector, supply-chain risk, “refers to efforts by threat actors to exploit information and communications technologies (ICTs) and their related supply chains for purposes of espionage, sabotage, foreign interference, and criminal activity,” the report states. The 5G supply chain is particularly vulnerable because of the rush to get devices to market and the potential for counterfeit components.

The supply chain sub-threat vectors, according to the report, include inherited components, which are those that come from third-party suppliers, vendors or service providers. “Flaws or malware inserted early in the development phases are more difficult to detect and could lead to the developer marking the component as legitimate through digital signatures or other approvals,” the report states. “These vulnerabilities could then later be exploited by malicious actors.”

Finally, systems architectures are at risk because even though IT and communication firms are enhancing security with 5G, “both legacy and new vulnerabilities may be exploited by malicious actors,” the report states. “For example, the overlay of 4G legacy and 5G architectures could provide the opportunity for a malicious actor to carry out a downgrade attack, where a user on a 5G network could be forced to use 4G, thereby allowing the malicious actor to exploit known 4G vulnerabilities.”

Also, because 5G networks will use more information and communications technologies than past generations, bad actors have more potential points of entry.

The report names seven sub-threat vectors in this category, including configuration, software-defined networking, spectrum sharing and multiaccess edge computing. For the latter, it offers a sample scenario in which a firmware vulnerability in MEC lets a bad actor gain access and steal sensitive sensor and user equipment data, modify data streams and deny access to other data.

The report notes that it is the first on the working group’s consideration of 5G-associated risks and that more will follow.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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