The race to launch 5G early raises security concerns over signalling

Pyeongchang 5G
Image credit: Scharfsinn /

Operators racing to deploy 5G services in time for the Winter Olympic games in 2018 are in danger of forgetting the security lessons of the past, warns the co-founder of network signalling security firm Evolved Intelligence at Mobile World Congress in Shanghai.

Speaking during one of the conference panels on Network Evolution on Thursday, Peter Blackie, co-founder and commercial director of Evolved Intelligence, said that not enough progress had yet been made on securing 5G network signalling.

“It is only in the last couple of years that we have begun to protect the open door in the SS7 signalling protocol used in second and third generation networks,” he said. “Hackers and fraudsters have found that door and have now begun exploiting the weakness.”

That’s why it’s vital that as well as continuing to close that door, the industry must also ensure that signalling security in 4G and 5G networks gets the attention it requires now to avoid repeating past mistakes.

“It’s also worth recognizing,” said Blackie, “that investment now in current networks, including 4G, would pay long-term dividends. The defense systems will evolve with the new technology and provide the best protection against future attacks which will be aimed across all protocols.”

Referring to the race to launch in time for the Winter Olympics, Blackie added, “I understand the commercial targeting of big events for new technology, but it will put the operators in a vulnerable position if they launch 5G networks without the right level of security.”

Earlier this year, hackers exploited the weakness in SS7 signalling to defraud banking customers in Germany, diverting text messages that had been sent to authorize consumer transactions to their own mobiles rather than to the registered user.

Although SS7 signalling, typically used to communicate between networks, is not used in 4G and 5G systems, the replacement Diameter signalling has some of the same inter-network security issues, Blackie warned.

“The security issues will not fade away with the closure of the legacy networks,” he said.  “The Diameter signalling used in 4G and 5G networks will need improved security to keep the fraudsters at bay – especially as the technology underpinning Diameter will be more familiar to IT and computer hackers than the telecoms technology used in SS7 signalling.”

Blackie said that the current network planning phase was the perfect time to build signalling firewalls and safety into 5G network roll-outs and to learn the lessons of the past.

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