5G mobile networks have been a long time in development, almost 11 years at the time of this writing. One would think that by the time the technology is ready for a rollout, it would have all the areas covered be it speed, reliability, overall performance, or security.
Unfortunately, the fifth generation of mobile networks are still far from ready and may, in fact, prove to be a breeding ground for new varieties of cybercrimes and hacking exploits.
A Fundamental Problem in 5G
The most serious cybersecurity problems associated with 5G stem from the inherent characteristics of the technology itself. 5G utilizes millimeter waves, which have a much shorter-range than conventional lower-frequency radio waves.
If you remember your college physics, you’re probably aware that higher frequency radiation, like millimeter and microwaves, are absorbed much more easily by obstacles in their way. As such, 5G primarily operates on waves that have a much smaller range which means that you will need line-of-sight access to a nearby mobile station or node in order for your mobile device to receive a strong enough 5G signal.
For extensive 5G coverage, therefore, telecom operators will need to install nodes at a significantly higher density in a given area than previous technologies required.
This is where the source of the greatest security threat in 5G infrastructure originates from. An attacker can steal you information by setting up a fake cell tower — or stingray as it is more commonly known — near your home and learn a great deal about the device you are using including location, phone model, operating system etc. These can even be used to listen in on your phone calls.
Apart from being a blatant breach of user privacy, this can potentially put users in danger of theft or a robbery by allowing the robbers to plan the crime and their targets with this available information. Since the data that a 5G-enabled device communicates to a cell tower for establishing connectivity is un-encrypted, any fake node can acquire this data.
That’s an ideal playground for hackers to apply their tricks in, since there’s no easy way for a layman to distinguish between a legitimate cell tower and a fake one.
So, what can we do about these serious security and privacy risks that 5G only seems to be increasing rather than mitigating?
The Usual Protective Measures
Unfortunately, there’s little that we can do beyond the basic privacy and security enhancing measures that should become common practice in 2019. Among the immediate first lines of defense against cybersecurity threats are VPN services and anti-malware tools.
The surprising fact is that even silicon valley CEOs overlook these measures, as this survey found that many of these don’t even use VPNs to avoid being tracked online. Although anti-malware and VPNs probably won’t be enough to protect you from the problem of 5G stingrays, they can definitely make your overall web presence much more secure. The IP-masking and encryption effects of VPNs can certainly keep your sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands. To find out more about how VPNs work to protect your privacy, read the article on what is a VPN?
The aforementioned vulnerabilities in 5G networks can only be effectively fixed by using better encryption and protection processes while connecting to a cell tower. All other protective measures are makeshift at best, which brings me back to the main point that 5G networks are far from ready for full-scale deployment.
For those that value their privacy, the wise thing to do would be to wait before existing security holes in 5G are plugged in before you decide to subscribe. You never know what kind of dangers you might be exposing yourself to.