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U.S. Cybersecurity Agency Mitigating Potential Threats to 5G Infrastructure

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) collaborates with the National Security Agency  (NSA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to outline the risks to 5G that threaten national and economic security and could impact other national and global interests. They released a paper titled Potential Threat Vectors to 5G Infrastructure. This paper identifies and assesses risks and vulnerabilities introduced by 5G.

The report identifies three main potential threat vectors to 5G networks: policy and standards, supply chain and 5G systems architecture. The 5G Threat Model Working Panel first reviewed existing work to find and compile an aggregated list of known and potential threats.  The panel then identified and developed sample scenarios of where 5G may be adopted, and assessed the associated risks to 5G core technologies.

The foundation of the 5G infrastructure is open, transparent and consensus-driven policies and standards, which will drive the design and architecture of new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, edge computing and telemedicine. International standards and policies must be open, transparent, and consensus-driven.

Within the threats to policies and standards category are two sub-threat vectors: open standards and optional controls. If standards are not open, they may include unique, untrusted technologies and equipment, and such propriety tech could limit competition and interoperability.

If optional security controls are not implemented, the effects could be detrimental. It could make networks more susceptible to cyberattacks. Nation states may attempt to exert undue influence on standards that benefit their proprietary technologies and limit customers’ choices to use other equipment or software.

There are also risks associated with the development of standards, where standard bodies may develop optional controls, which are not implemented by operators. By not implementing these subjective security measures, operators could introduce gaps in the network and open the door for malicious threat actors.

The second vector, supply-chain risk refers to efforts by threat actors to exploit information and communications technologies (ICTs) and their related supply chains for purposes of espionage, sabotage, foreign interference, and criminal activity. The 5G supply chain is particularly vulnerable because of the rush to get devices to market and the potential for counterfeit components.

The supply chain sub-threat vectors include inherited components, which are those that come from third-party suppliers, vendors or service providers. Flaws or malware inserted early in the development phases are more difficult to detect and could lead to the developer marking the component as legitimate through digital signatures or other approvals. These vulnerabilities could then later be exploited by malicious actors.

Finally, systems architectures are at risk because both legacy and new vulnerabilities may be exploited by malicious actors even though IT and communication firms are enhancing security with 5G. For example, the overlay of 4G legacy and 5G architectures could provide the opportunity for a malicious actor to carry out a downgrade attack, where a user on a 5G network could be forced to use 4G, thereby allowing the malicious actor to exploit known 4G vulnerabilities

As 5G networks will use more information and communications technologies than past generations, bad actors have more potential points of entry. The report names seven sub-threat vectors in this category, including configuration, software-defined networking, spectrum sharing and multiaccess edge computing. For the latter, it offers a sample scenario in which a firmware vulnerability in MEC lets a bad actor gain access and steal sensitive sensor and user equipment data, modify data streams and deny access to other data.

As reported by OpenGov Asia, NSA also collaborates with The Defense Information Systems Agency, Department of Defense (DoD), and U.S. Cyber Command to develop the initial Department of Defense  Zero Trust Reference Architecture. Zero Trust is a cybersecurity strategy and framework that embeds security throughout the architecture to prevent malicious actors from accessing the most critical assets.


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