The Potential Vulnerabilities of 5G

5G will be the technology that will revolutionize high-speed wireless connectivity globally in the next decade. Conservative figures estimate that 40% of humanity will be connected through its networks by 2025[1] and according to a study published by GSMA [2], it will produce an estimated $2 trillion for the world economy once implemented.

While there is a frantic race to implement it and it is an unstoppable fact that it is being deployed to five continents, two recently published studies have highlighted some vulnerabilities inherited from previous technologies, which may become serious threats if they are not addressed in a timely manner.

What are the inherited vulnerabilities of 5G?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B. – – @galevy

A study conducted by Syed Rafiul Hussai [3], a researcher from Purdue University [4] located in Indiana, in association with researchers from the University of Iowa [5], both in the United States, and referenced by the newspaper el País in Spain [6], identifies around eleven possible vulnerabilities associated with 5G mobile technology [7]. These could eventually be present in devices operating under this type of network and, although the study generally identified that the fifth generation will be much more secure than all the generations that preceded it, many security problems have not yet been solved and if this is not accomplished, it could represent a major problem for the entire industry.

But the warning of the North American researchers led by Purdue, is not the only one, since the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) recently published, almost in parallel, an extensive document that provides an in-depth and exhaustive diagnosis of around 60 threats associated with fifth generation networks, among those that stand out:

“The manipulation of the connection to control third-party devices and access, illegal configuration of content and data, multiple frauds and false alarms, to look for open application programming interfaces, Espionage and theft of information and the fragility of the 5G’s infrastructure in the face of natural disasters such as floods, fires or earthquakes”. ENISA

Some of the results of Hussai‘s research include possible flaws in the security architecture of the protocols that could be used, among many other possibilities, to track the real-time location of a user or “know his/her identity, forge emergency alerts or disconnect a phone from the network completely without notice“.

For Juhan Lepassaar, Executive Director of ENISA, the arrival of 5G networks brings with it numerous security challenges that are equally inherited from the first generations and are also present in 4G.

“Unlike previous generations, the risks are much more worrying with this new generation, as data is more exposed and vulnerable, due to the colossal dimensioning of networks and the exposure of information, a situation that is aggravated by the number of devices and applications connected”. Juhan Lepassaar CEO ENISA

How Were Vulnerabilities Identified?

The research developed by Purdue University [8], has built a standard model of a 5G device and verified about 187 characteristics of the infrastructure and made a detailed security analysis using a technology called: 5GReasoner [9], and recorded all the behavior of the device through a language modeling

“For example, we tried to see if it was possible to capture and recreate an entire conversation with exactly the same information. And so, little by little, we could see that it had the same defects as the old technologies,” Syed Rafiul Hussai, researcher at Purdue University

Why is it necessary for 5G networks to be very secure?

5G networks will be the backbone of global communications. The data of millions of people will circulate through them, which will be connected 7×24 through smartphone connections. They will not only be people, but also self-driving cars, home automation, telemedicine equipment where the health and the life of thousands of patients will rest, and intelligent cities totally connected with traffic lights, crossroads, surveillance systems, etc. [10].

It is important to emphasize that the promise of 5G is the great capacity of information circulation, the stability of networks and above all, the speed that will far exceed any other wireless technology that has ever existed, allowing, for example, to download a two-hour movie in less than four seconds.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): “The speeds will be radically higher reaching an average of at least 1 gigabyte per second, allowing the explosion in the services derived from the Internet of Things, this paradigm assumes that any physical object that can be connected to a sensor is susceptible to being connected to the Internet and managed remotely via the web” ITU.

The ability to connect to the world at high speeds and transfer information so efficiently is what makes the promise of 5G so appealing. However, considering the information that will circulate through their networks, it is essential that they are totally secure, which has been questioned after the studies published by Hussai.

The 5G Geopolitics

As we showed in a previous article [11], 5G has become the most important battleground between China, the United States and Europe. And although the founding spirit of 5G is a standard agreed upon by dozens of companies around the world under the tutelage of the ITU, it is very likely that these vulnerabilities can be used by governments to impose their interests, spy on their rivals and even put other countries’ economies in check, which makes it even more necessary to reinforce the many identified weaknesses.

The GSMA’s response

The Global System for Mobile Communications GSMA, which promotes the standardization and implementation of 5G, was warned by the American and European experts who have sent the results of their studies. GMSA has expressed “its gratitude to the researchers for allowing the industry to consider these conclusions and for their impact on improving security and user confidence in their mobile devices”.

However, according to the association, these “scenarios” would not take place, or would be “unlikely” to occur in practice, which shows the contempt this organization has for the international community of hackers, who have historically demonstrated that they are capable of attacking even the most secure systems, an attitude that could ultimately compromise the success of the 5G project.

In conclusion, although 5G will be a technology that will significantly transform the lives of people around the world, it will materialize the Internet of Things (IoT), enhance connectivity and contribute to global economic growth. Due to our future dependence on this technology, it is necessary that the technological developments that arise, solve all the vulnerabilities identified by Syed Rafiul Hussai as well as those reported by the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA).

[1] 5G will reach 40% of humanity by 2024

[2] 5G’s contributions to the world economy over the next 15 years

[3] Reference Study by Syed Rafiul Hassai

[4] Syed Rafiul Hassaj, Purdue University

[5] The University of Iowa

[6] Newspaper El País reference in Spain

[7] 5G Network Vulnerability Report – Fast Company


[9] 5Greasoner Technology Reference Document

[10] Article: The Promise of Smart Cities: Illusion or Reality

[11] 5G Sets the Agenda for Global Geopolitics

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