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Is 5G Vulnerable to New Cyberattacks Thanks to Edge Computing?

5G is reaching a tipping point as consumers are projected to buy over 260 million 5G-powered phones like the iPhone 12 this year. But there’s an issue facing the infrastructure being built to support them: the increased reliance on cloud services and edge computing means the opportunity for a new wave.

Compared to earlier rollouts with 3G and 4G where most of these infrastructures were purpose-built hardware appliances from a single vendor who integrated and secured everything from hardware to software. 

To fulfill the promise and take full advantage of the 5G NR, more and more services are being pushed to the edge and deployed in a virtualized and scale-out manner similar to that employed by public cloud providers.

This virtualization and containerization of 5G infrastructure means there are more components that need to be secured. The fact that these components not only include purpose-built network functions but also include COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) hardware and software, securing 5G requires more consideration to ensure different layers and different components from different vendors are secured.

The 5G services-based architecture means that 5G infrastructure will be more distributed than ever. Service-based architectures provide a modular framework from which common applications can be deployed using components of varying sources and suppliers. This architecture ensures that 5G is more open and easier to scale and can be deployed in a distributed fashion. Many of the 5G solution vendors are looking at cloud technology to build the 5G infrastructure. While this new approach does bring benefits with respect to scale and performance, it is a paradigm shift.

5G infrastructure will be more open and connect to the public network in more locations. There will be more Internet peering, more connections to other public cloud providers to support many edge applications.

Especially as people continue to work from home, driving more services to the edge as everyone has a unique location to connect to their company’s solutions. FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) with 5G is one of the first use cases commercialized for 5G. This pandemic and work from home will drive this demand.

See also: Is 5G Fixed Wireless Access the New ISDN?

Service providers and cloud providers are investing more into the edge to improve user experience and meet the coming demand for AI/ML, autonomous vehicles, and computer vision, but this comes with a great deal of concern around security threats and how to secure distributed environments.

For example, some IT teams view edge computing as a threat to organizations due to the inability to secure every device on a network.

Edge security solutions are much more distributed in nature, requiring service provider IT teams need to manage thousands of distributed secured devices daily. Service providers need to ensure that their edge infrastructure is fully secure and is not susceptible to rogue devices or malicious software.

This is not just about securing edge computing. It is because the trends of more distributed nature, more virtualization, containerization, more use of COTS as well as more open networks make it harder to secure.

Service providers have to catch up with tech infrastructure's transition from the data center to spread across the edge, cloud, and individual devices. By running container services at the edge, all this information becomes exposed at the architectural level. Someone hacking into a service provider poses a much greater risk than just hacking into individual phones or other 5G devices.

When data was isolated from the rest of the infrastructure, security wasn’t a constant battle. But increased bandwidth capacity from streaming services and cloud models are spreading the attack “surface” and presenting a ripe opportunity to a lot of attackers.

With 5G, everything is virtualized and containerized - run in a discrete environment set up within an operating system specifically for that purpose and allocated only essential resources. However, these containers are still open to misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, and external threats.

Here’s what service providers and enterprises should do

Service providers and their enterprise customers can take steps to improve their own security measures within the 5G infrastructure and the services deployed on it.

The first step is having the best possible endpoint and firewall protection, as that will stop the initial 90 percent of attacks through prevention or mitigation, remaining is addressed by detection.

Service providers need to ensure that protective services like firewalls are baked into the hardware they use — rather than standalone software — by deploying SmartNICs and other advanced security solutions.

What’s left is monitoring for hidden attackers, which can be the most difficult to detect due to a lack of end-to-end visibility. Once an attacker is inside the network, they can freely move around by blending in with regular traffic.

The answer here is micro-segmentation along with "zero trusts:" segment computers into different nodes and only allow them to talk to each other through approved channels.

The second is going to be running observability solutions: collecting all telemetry data and running it through advanced ML or AI for effective detection of anomalies left by hidden attackers.

It’s up to all of us to keep 5G safe

This work will require everyone’s contribution, and we should not put all the burden on service providers to upgrade. This is about diligence and best practices for security at every level: enterprises, users, vendors, service providers, and even government investment for the best possible and most secure 5G infrastructure.

For example, President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for 5G for all Americans, and this plan should also include investments in security infrastructure as well.

Eddie Tan is Director of Product Management at Pensando Systems.