The 5G era must be mission-critical and secure by design

By Peter Clemons
Monday, 16 December, 2019

The 5G era must be mission-critical and secure by design

During my ‘Critical Communications all the way to the Edge’ keynote presentation at November’s Comms Connect Melbourne, I didn’t really have the opportunity to emphasise the absolutely massive and fundamental role that critical communications will play in the rapidly approaching 5G era, which itself will lead to highly disruptive digital transformation of societies and economies.

The latest generation of cellular architectures are being redesigned to take advantage of rapid advances in global IT data centre, cloud computing and storage facilities — now extended to the networking domain via such foundational frameworks as SDN, NFV and emerging network slicing techniques. This increased complexity leads to larger attack surfaces and new vulnerabilities that need to be dealt with at all stages of the extended 5G value chain.

Due to the diligent, highly professional, dedicated work of hundreds, perhaps thousands of industry experts working closely together for 3GPP and related national, regional and global SDOs, the 5G suite of technologies and solutions incorporate many new network security, confidentiality, integrity and availability procedures into the basic design and implementation phases. However, in the real world, bad actors still roam, networks can still be misconfigured, humans are still vulnerable and prone to errors and not all service activation and monitoring will be able to be fully automated for the foreseeable future.

Governments, equipment vendors, service providers and enterprises are becoming increasingly aware that the success of 5G depends on the development of an enhanced security framework that builds on the efforts of previous generations. They’re also learning from the best practices of critical communications providers and users, who joined the 3GPP effort back in Release 11/12, building a mission-critical application layer on top of LTE network infrastructure. Now it is time to build a fully mission-critical, secure-by-design solution that will protect the increasingly valuable assets of a full 5G world.

At the 3GPP Plenary in Spain in December — #86, to move Release 16 (5G Phase 2) towards its completion and start work on Release 17 — there was a heavy focus on mission-critical verticals such as connected/autonomous vehicles, fully automated factories, eHealth and UAVs, as well as further enhancements to mission-critical services used by emergency services, utilities and transport. It is now clear just how far both the commercial and critical communications communities have come on their respective journeys.

In a future where everyone and everything will be connected, and practically all imaginable services will be delivered to some degree over next-generation digital platforms, the enormous value of such services and the dependency of entire sectors, economies and societies on 5G means that it must be mission-critical by nature and secure by design. Attackers will target the weakest link in the network, the lowest priority network slice; poorly configured, legacy interfaces, protocols and APIs that could potentially open up entire nationwide networks to catastrophic attacks.

Such a world will require entirely new value systems; radically new legal, regulatory and financial frameworks; a new social contract. Collaboration on a global scale will become a necessity. Are we ready to take up such an enormous challenge? Only time will tell, but increased, mutual cooperation and collaboration — out of necessity — offer the hope that future generations will find the solutions that have so far evaded us to create a better, smarter, safer world for all. Failure is not an option!

Peter Clemons is Chief Innovator at Quixoticity and a former director and board member of TCCA. His current focus is on 5G through membership of the 3GPP and ETSI.

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