5G: High speed at the risk of security
The telecommunication industry has advanced so much that everything is just a finger-touch away today. However, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people could only speak over a mobile phone. This can be considered the first generation of wireless communication (1G). The following decade (the 1990s) witnessed 2G technology-supported communication via SMS, MMS, and fax. In the early 2000s, 3G technology introduced mobile data which supported video calling and other applications that made modern smartphones popular. Soon 4G ushered in the era of mobile internet and offered better bandwidth and voice over IP capabilities. This led to an increase in demand for data, paving the way for 5G technology.
5G promises a plethora of uses: expanded coverage and speed, low latency, support for connected devices and smart homes, e-health, content services, tactile internet, and more. However, the advantages of advancement are always matched with the disadvantages of associated risks.
The downside of 5G technology
5G technology is a double-edged sword - monetisation opportunities for telecommunication companies (telecoms) on one hand, and undeniable vulnerabilities on the other.
- Roaming arbitrage. This is the most common type of fraud. When users move from their Home Public Mobile Network (HPMN) in which they hold the subscription for services (such as making or receiving calls and exchanging data) to a different geographical location of coverage (or a Visited Public Mobile Network, VPMN), they incur charges. HPMN pays VPMN as per pre-decided contractual agreements, and later deducts from users.
- Service abuse. This is a serious privacy concern. Imagine being watched while watching TV, or your 5G equipped smart helmet being tracked. What’s worse is that you are in the dark all along, with a system slowdown being the only visible sign! Creepy!
- Content abuse. This is as uncanny as service abuse. You are targeted through your social media accounts. Everything from mining Bitcoins to posting fake news on Twitter is exploitable. With 5G, everything you own is a possible privacy threat.
- Identity theft. Account takeover attempts are increasing by 55 per cent with each passing year. ID verification has to be carried out manually, but they are often ineffective, making it convenient for fraudsters to use stolen identities and walk out of stores undetected.
- Social engineering attacks. These are malicious activities achieved through psychological manipulations. The perpetrator tricks victims into giving out personal information by various means such as phishing, baiting, scareware, spamming, tailgating, or pretexting. About 22 percent of data breaches are due to social engineering attacks, according to a 2020 study by Verizon.
- Spamming, smishing. With the increased use of mobile devices, attackers spam or phish using SMS or MMS instead of emails. SMS viruses can promise a ‘sexy view’ on clicking a link which in reality would download malware that use the victim’s contact list to spread the virus. And, this was only the beginning of more serious cybersecurity issues to come.
- Device hacking. Previous network designs routed signals through physical choke points that allowed control over fraudulent activities. However, 5G uses a web of digital routers, making it more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
When VPMN services are used by fraudulent means, its detection goes unnoticed for a long time as the process is time-consuming. This means that HPMN operators cannot levy charges and have to bear the charges themselves.
Mitigating risks of 5G technology and the way forward
As networks and services grow in complexity, fraudsters use even more sophisticated technology to launch attacks. For telcos, this means that these functions — managing fraud and assuring revenue — require an end-to-end approach that proactively identifies future challenges.
With right due diligence, effective requirement gathering, and anti-fraud strategy, the Fraud management and revenue assurance (RA/FM) function of telcos can plug security gaps and tackle emerging risks (among interfacing applications, devices, and payment gateways). Investing in cybersecurity is the key to saving billions of dollars that telcos suffer each year due to fraudulent activities and to achieving long-term business goals.
Things are going to get more complex in the future with researchers working on 6G network technology that is expected to bring about the growth of edge computing and the internet of things (IoT). Stay on top of things now and be prepared to face more challenges!
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