It’s no secret that the arrival of 5G technology will usher in a new wave of powerful business advantages. However, it’s also opening the door for an influx of threat vectors your enterprise will have to navigate along the way.

In this guide, we’ll help you learn the ins and outs of 5G security. From what it is and why it’s at risk to how you can protect it, we’ll discuss everything there is to know about strengthening your 5G security architecture.

Understanding 5G

Building a solid 5G security posture requires a stable foundation. Let’s review the basics of 5G, how it compares to past generations, and why it’s so important for the future of enterprise networking.

What is 5G?

In short, 5G is the fifth generation of wireless telecommunication networks. As the latest in a line of innovations, each iteration has introduced its own set of new and impactful capabilities.

According to the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA), each generation of mobile network technology is released roughly every 10 years — and with it, a host of benefits. For example, here’s how networking has evolved over the past few decades:

  • 1980s: First generation (1G) wireless networks brought the very first cell phones.
  • 1990s: 2G brought improved coverage and texting.
  • 2000s: 3G introduced voice with data and internet access.
  • 2010s: 4G long-term evolution (LTE) delivered faster speeds to keep up with increasing mobile data demand and rising network traffic.
  • Now: 5G technology will transform the digital landscape and serve as a catalyst for innovation, new markets, and economic growth. As tens of billions of devices are connected to the internet through 5G, these connections will empower a vast array of new services in healthcare, manufacturing, finance, artificial intelligence, and critical infrastructure. Likewise, 5G connectivity is stepping up to handle enormous bandwidth demands and enable seamless live streaming at scale.

As of 2023, 5G wireless networks are available in most major American cities and towns. Globally, Italy ranks the highest on the European 5G scoreboard, with 99.7% of households having access to 5G connectivity. Looking ahead, telecom operators are continuing to invest heavily in the infrastructure necessary to expand their 5G reach and will do exactly that in the coming years.

How does 5G work?

As CISA explains, the 5G infrastructure enables billions of additional connected devices, sensors, and systems to intelligently access the network based on time sensitivity and computational needs.

Like 4G LTE, it’s based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), a process that encodes digital signals in a particular way to reduce interference. Alongside OFDM, 5G wireless networks leverage low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum, which requires the deployment of small cells and macro towers.

In simple terms, small cells act as signal repeaters that enhance speed, network capacity, and reliability in high-density areas. Macro towers are small transmitters installed on buildings and other structures, allowing telecom operators to support even more devices at faster speeds.

What’s the difference between 4G and 5G?

For all intents and purposes, 5G represents a marked improvement over previous networking technologies. According to CISA, 5G offers:

  • 100x faster download speeds: A 3GB movie would take 40 minutes to download on 4G LTE, but only 35 seconds on a 5G network.
  • 10x decrease in latency: 5G rapidly accelerates data response times, which can be as low as one millisecond. In other words, you can find what you’re looking for at a moment’s notice.
  • 100x network capacity: 5G can handle a much greater volume of network traffic, allowing millions of connected devices to access the same network from the same area without failure.

From telemedicine to industry 4.0, these benefits translate into substantial productivity gains for use cases of all shapes and sizes.

Notably, 5G also represents a significant improvement in terms of cybersecurity. Compared to past generations, it’s been designed from the outset with threat protection as one of its most foundational elements.

The fifth generation also introduces the concept of the Subscriber Concealed Identity (SUCI). In essence, 5G devices don’t send their true identity over the air; instead, they send an encrypted version — the SUCI. This concealment relies on public key cryptography, which encrypts the member’s ID to safeguard against vulnerabilities.

What is 5G security?

5G security can be defined as the convergence of cyber and physical security controls for the purpose of protecting an underlying 5G infrastructure. This includes securing hardware, software, network traffic, users, and data that access or flow through any 5G network.

Why is this important? Because It’s only a matter of time before security threats challenge your 5G deployment. Although the technology is relatively new, many bad actors are already attempting to exploit vulnerabilities. Given how many critical infrastructures rely on 5G networking, the stakes are growing larger by the day.

Indeed, there are several considerations to keep in mind:

  • Increased attack surface: With millions and even billions more connected devices, 5G is potentially vulnerable to larger and more sophisticated security threats.
  • IoT device vulnerabilities: IoT devices — especially personal, unmanaged assets — are inherently risky because security isn’t normally built-in by design. Each IoT device on a network represents another potential gap a hacker can expose. Worse yet, whether purposefully or not, organizations are adding new devices in troves. In fact, IDC predicts there will be 55.7 billion connected devices in the world by 2025.
  • Decreased network visibility: With 5G, our networks will only expand and become more usable by mobile users and devices. This means organizations have much more network traffic to manage. But, without a robust security solution, companies may not be able to gain the network visibility required to identify abnormalities or a potential attack.
  • Legacy infrastructure and untrusted components with known vulnerabilities: 5G builds upon previous generations and is currently being integrated with 4G LTE networks that contain legacy vulnerabilities. Some of these may affect 5G equipment and networks despite the integration of additional security features.

Strategies for a secure 5G network

Knowing your security gaps is half the battle when it comes to hardening 5G defenses. Let’s explore the possible threat vectors you may face and the various mitigation strategies at your disposal.

5G security vulnerabilities

Network slicing, equipment, and virtualized cloud-first configurations are all essential components of 5G infrastructure. However, they also represent important threats with the potential to compromise network security. Here’s a closer look at each one individually:

  1. Network slicing is a configuration strategy that allows multiple networks to stack on top of a common physical infrastructure. Each “slice” of the network can be allocated based on specific needs or use cases. On the downside, this increases complexity and requires each slice to implement its own security requirements commensurate with its use case. A misconfigured network could allow denial-of-service, man-in-the-middle, and other attacks to slip through the cracks. Worse yet, the sheer scale of network slicing introduces billions of potential attack vectors, as a successful breach could infiltrate many slices or domains simultaneously.
  2. User equipment (UE) refers to hardware intended for consumer use, such as a mobile phone or IoT device. In a 2022 study, researchers tested the impact that UE-based Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks could have on 5G infrastructure. Not only did their results indicate that 5G networks are vulnerable to DDoS attacks, but a successful strike would prove devastating to network performance.
  3. Virtualization and cloud services play a big role in 5G deployment. According to CISA, most networks are instantiated on virtualized compute, network, and storage resources and leverage both private and public cloud platforms. This means they exist outside the walled perimeter of dedicated servers and protocols. Network functions are now performed by software, and software is hackable — therefore, 5G infrastructure built atop software code is susceptible to attack.

How to strengthen 5G security

As PwC argues, all participants in the 5G ecosystem — including mobile operators, network vendors, system integrators and end businesses — should agree to assess the health of every component before it’s permitted to connect to the network. Moreover, they should agree to limit or deny access based on this assessment.

In other words, a robust 5G security architecture must be built upon strict authentication. Accordingly, there are several best practice solutions for doing exactly that:

1. Zero Trust

A vital first step towards protecting any network is to implement a Zero Trust framework. Eliminating implicit trust for all entities will reduce risk exposure across the board, as all components must first undergo a process of risk-based authentication. Only if they meet all access control requirements will they be allowed a network connection, thereby mitigating the threat of unauthorized access.

2. Public key infrastructure (PKI)

With an advanced PKI solution, organizations can use cryptographic keys to provide a secure foundation for 5G networking. PKI enables strong authentication procedures, as each entity is issued its own digital certificate proving its identity.

Take the Entrust PKI portfolio, for example. Our Certificate Authority solution simplifies certificate lifecycle management, allowing you to issue, revoke, or renew at scale. Reduce the risk of expired certificates poking holes in your security posture by automating the workflow in one transparent interface. Administrators can be automatically notified by email about certificates approaching expiration and can view certificates approaching key lifecycle events via the system dashboard.

3. Hardware security modules

Hardware security modules (HSMs) should be used to generate, store, and manage cryptographic keys. This critical protection layer keeps keys out of plain sight where a threat actor could intercept them. More importantly, HSMs store high-value cryptographic assets in hardened, tamper-resistant devices, which is widely considered to be best practice. The use of HSMs such as Entrust nShield HSMs are recommended in national and regional standards such as the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) Security in 5G Specifications.

Protect your 5G network with Entrust

Using the right combination of strategies and solutions, organizations can safely navigate the uncharted waters of 5G security. And, with Entrust at your side, you don’t have to do it alone.

Access our portfolio of nShield HSMs, PKI, and Zero Trust technologies to successfully harden your defenses against the looming 5G threats. Paired with our leadership and expertise, you’ll be well on your way to a prosperous future, supported by a secure next-generation network.

Learn more about our 5G-ready HSMs today.