Analysis of 5G Network Security Reveals Attack Possibilities

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Exploitation of vulnerabilities within the 5G network architecture could allow Denial of Service (DoS) attacks and for attackers to conduct remote attacks.

According to new research from Positive Technologies on the security of the network architecture, interaction of network elements, and subscriber authentication and registration procedures, key areas of network security include proper configuration of equipment, as well as authentication and authorization of network elements. In the absence of these elements, the network becomes vulnerable.

Speaking on a webinar to launch the report, Positive Technologies CTO Dmitry Kurbatov said attacks had moved from SMS and call interception, and subscriber DoS, which were prevalent in 2015, and this led to mobile network operators (MNOs) implementing security defenses to mitigate these threats. However in 2020 with the introduction of 5G, and with the start of remote working, there was “burst of interest” in the use of 5G.

Kurbatov said that 5G was initially launched with “stand alone” terminals which used the previous LTE and 4G networks, allowing it to be rolled out fast, but also “they are quite vulnerable and still at risk of attacks because of a long list of long-standing vulnerabilities.” He said the big question now for all of telecoms and security, is “what will be the security situation within 5G once transition is over and after networks are deployed in pure stand alone mode?”

Having performed some test attacks, Kurbatov was able to perform a Man in the Middle attack, and this is critical as “this attack is performed by remote” and usually we expect attacks to require physical proximity. This factor is not needed “as the hacker can be far far away from the victim and still conduct this attack and be physically safe.” In doing that, they can download firmware to a device, and when you consider that 5G will be used in industrial environments, that is why its security is critical.

In a second demo, Kurbatov demonstrated a DoS attack which he said will be critical because of 5G’s use in critical applications, such as connected cars and industrial automation. “So a DoS is super critical because when the network or service is down, like point of sale, ATM, CCTV or any kind of safety control will be immediately disconnected,” he said. “So the ability to run the main functions will be distracted, so DoS is critical as it can impact the entire city of the future.”

Kurbatov said these two attack techniques were selected “in order to explain some of the deficiencies in the 5G architecture which can heavily impact both businesses and subscribers.” He also said there are other vulnerabilities which can be exploited, and he said there are three reasons why this is happening:

  • Internal protocols like PFCP is much like the previously known GTP which has been proven to be vulnerable, as this can assist attackers in exploiting deficiencies in the protocols to help them “run the network the way they would like to.”
  • Network exposure, due to misconfiguration, is a common problem. “Probably more than 70% of cybersecurity incidents happen because of misconfiguration or vulnerabilities,” he said. “Misconfiguration can allow an attack to get access to the core mobile network.”
  • 5G will still work in parallel with LTE for the next decade, but according to forecasts, by 2025 the majority of the traffic will be handled by LTE networks and only partially by 5G. “This is because the penetration of new technologies is not that big.”

Kurbatov said the “cost of failure is much more than remediation” and 5G is a critical infrastructure “not only for industry but for modern society, and that is why focusing on prevention will really save time, money and probably lives.”

Asked by Infosecurity  why these protocols are an issue now and have not been a problem in the past, Kurbatov said these are brand new vulnerabilities as they are used in 5G protocols, and have not used before, but “will be adopted soon in all of the networks.” He said the technology type in 5G is different as “all the same type of major risks can be executed on the larger scale as 5G is the technology of all the technologies.”

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