A Fireside Chat...With a Twist

Posted Jun 2018

At the GSMA’s Mobile 360 Privacy & Security event, our COO and Product director, Steve Buck, was scheduled to have a so-called fireside chat with respected analyst Martin Garner of CCS Insight. When Martin was unable to attend at the last moment, he sent Steve a couple of questions to kick off the one-man chat show.

Here’s how the ‘conversation’ unfolded – and the full ‘chat’ is also available here.

Martin Garner: As we moved through the various generations of mobile technology, the cyber security threat actually moved faster, and stayed ahead of network security. The result was that operators needed to react and install firewalls on the inter-connect circuits. With that in mind, should we be worried about 5G?

Steve Buck: In the early days of mobile I actually wrote standards for the technology. We worried about the radio encryption not the core network. With each successive generation, the air interface security got better. Unfortunately, the signalling security got worse.

With interconnect access it is frighteningly easy to hack or track mobiles through the signalling. With the 2G and 3G networks it is not easy, however, to ‘spoof’ a message originator. Sadly, that’s not the case with 4G networks. Because the signalling security has gotten worse – and that doesn’t augur well for 5G.

Indeed, until recently, there were signs the industry was at it again – all the focus on the speed of the air interface. But for the operators, 5G should not be about speed – even if the consumers might think that and even buy services on the back of that premise.

Henry Ford gave consumers a car when they thought they just wanted a faster horse. Operators need 5G to enable new services and new business models, not just faster ones. And many of those new services are going to need improved security. Improved from what we have now and much improved on what is missing from 5G.

Martin Garner: So, operators are racing to launch 5G, and we already know that the security isn’t yet well enough defined – so what are the big areas that need to be pinned down?

Steve Buck: 5G networks are designed to be open. To use simple APIs to enable innovative new services to be introduced by operators working in partnership with vendors and developers. But open and easy connectivity is virtually the opposite of tight security. When it comes to 5G, the networks need to be open and closed at the same time.

So – we need to build a more intelligent firewall for 5G. And we need to build it before 5G networks are interconnected. The 3GPP have defined the requirement for a security interface for 5G called The Security Edge Protection Protocol (SEPP). The aim is to get that specified for the next release of 5G – release 16.

SEPP will provide end-to-end encryption and authentication to validate the sender making the interconnect. In current generations of networks, the firewall looks at messages to spot and block those that are potentially malicious.

That means, with 5G, we can work on security that blocks any messages that are not properly authenticated, effectively killing the threat at source – which is a better method than hunting for threats hidden in the 12 billion signalling messages that we see every day crossing our systems.

The next step is to consider if it’s possible to retrofit that security to 4G networks which share the characteristics of 5G in signalling terms – and that would really help to improve mobile network security. But maybe that’s a conversation for another day.