Cybersecurity in the 5G era: Nightmare or opportunity?

Cybersecurity is a bit of a conversation killer. Despite a near-universal increase in our devotion to connected devices – and a corresponding increase in our risk of attack – most people I chat to socially find cybersecurity confusing, considering it far beyond their skill set.

That probably explains why, as you might have seen in our infographic, 86% of consumers have never updated their router firmware. This puts their devices and personal data at risk. It’s also a nightmare for ISPs as weak routers and unpatched devices on the network edge put core systems at extra risk.

And now along comes 5G, enabling faster, greater data flow. Does risk increase accordingly? Not necessarily, if broadband operators act wisely – at least within the home environment.

Security is the great differentiator

Recently, my colleague Jim Phillipoff took part in the Telecoms World Asia webinar series, discussing Cybersecurity Threats in the 5G era. (Watch it on-demand here.) My big takeaway was that 5G can be a turning point for broadband service providers. It’s an opportunity to build a reputation for security, which will become an essential differentiator as telecoms markets become ever more crowded.

Don’t look to device manufacturers for security help

Some operators might hope to continue avoiding responsibility for securing subscriber devices and data. But if consumers don’t have the skills, then who will help them? Certainly not device manufacturers. As webinar panelist Shafat Ullah Patwary, Head Of Information Security for Grameenphone pointed out, most companies making IoT devices are locked in a race to be cheapest. There’s little incentive for them to focus on security.

Legislation may change that in future, but even then, few consumers will buy all gadgets – from smartphones and TVs to connected fridges and printers – from a single vendor. Different ecosystems mean gaps, and that’s where hackers get excited.

Be the security partner your subscribers need

With their central role in providing Wi-Fi connectivity to the majority of devices in the home, broadband service providers are uniquely positioned to help. Adding security monitoring features to new and existing Wi-Fi access points (routers, gateways, mesh extenders) gives ISPs a complete view of all connected devices – no matter who made them. Get that monitoring right and you can be the early warning system for any increased risk.

Great broadband service is no longer defined by just speed and reliability. Security needs are becoming increasingly urgent.

A question of trust

The idea of monitoring has some consumers worried. Jim reminded the webinar audience that consumers are stuck in a catch-22 (or “no-win”) situation. They want help to protect their privacy, but to get that help, they’re going to have to share some of their private data – like device usage patterns – with whoever’s providing the help.

Subscribers already put some trust in their broadband service provider, relying on the ISP to maintain their flow of entertainment, support their home working and to ensure connectivity for a growing range of critical systems like heating, lighting, CCTV, locks, and even medical devices. A wise operator can leverage this position of trust and become the security partner their subscribers really need.

The future is here, let’s make the most of it!

5G has been a long time coming. Back in 2018 my colleague, Bengt Jonsson was blogging about the coming impact on pay TV. But now it’s here in 24 markets and GSMA predicts it’ll account for 20% of global connections by 2025.

The webinar ranged widely over this enormous topic – from autonomous vehicles to the benefits of network slicing. Most intriguing for me was speculation that ISPs might soon work with manufacturers to certify certain devices as secure, based on criteria such as signed firmware. They also envisaged a future where an ISP keeps tabs on in-home devices and automatically isolates those in need of a firmware update or security patch from the main network.

Another contributor, Teerawat Issariyakul, Senior Director at TOT Public Company Limited, Thailand’s state-owned telecommunications provider was keen to point out the improved encryption offered by 5G, whilst warning operators not to be sloppy in their implementation and to focus on security. “Whether you’re looking at 4G, 5G or wired network, as a consumer or a corporate you have to protect your assets and you’ve got to know the price of protecting your assets.”

That must surely be the message operators can focus on: “You can trust us. We can help with cybersecurity, but such a valuable service won’t be available for free.”  The reality is that relatively few smartphones support 5G today and the percentage is even lower for devices like laptops and smart TVs.   Routers will remain at the heart of connected homes for many years to come – even if the routers are getting their broadband from a 5G signal. I believe operators would be wise to keep their security focus on routers for at least the medium term.

Consumer needs lead to commercial benefits

As he closed-out the webinar, host David Robison of consultancy firm &How Intelligence suggested operators stop thinking in commercial terms for a moment and start thinking like hackers. He says this will help ISPs see what services consumers need most. Ultimately, when you focus on meeting the consumer’s greatest needs, isn’t that the very best kind of commercial thinking?

For more information on what consumers really feel about cybersecurity in the home, see our new International Consumer Survey.

Ronald Peters | Product Manager, Trusted Home