Mobile networks are fantastic things. Not only do they make it possible for consumers to send 6 billion text messages and make 2.4 billion calls per day, but they are also the foundation for the future of businesses and smart cities. Cellular broadband is the base for large-scale IoT deployments, which ushers in a whole set of revolutionary types of use cases — from autonomous vehicles to connected medical devices to smart manufacturing plants and far beyond.
As we unlock all of this innovation, we must ensure that security keeps pace. Advances like the shift to 5G networks and widespread adoption of network functions virtualization (NFV) and containerization (NFC) have added a great deal of complexity to the way mobile networks operate. All while the attack surface grows further to expose mission-critical networks to more types of attacks.
Mobile networks carry sensitive workloads. These include remote sensor data with health information from patients or IoT devices that control power plants. As a result of this hyperconnectivity, the stakes of mobile network security have increased in ways that aren’t as relevant when dealing with conventional IT infrastructure and networks.
When you consider all the factors mentioned above, it is no wonder that 45 percent of mobile network operators report that it is crucial to invest in security. Forty-eight percent say they lack sufficient tools and knowledge for addressing mobile network security threats.
So, where should you even start, and what does it take to secure a mobile network?
What is mobile network security?
Before diving into mobile network security requirements, let’s briefly define what mobile network security is by definition.
Mobile network security, otherwise known as cellular network security, is the tools, processes, and strategies used by stakeholders to secure mobile networks and the data exchanged. Those tools, methods, and procedures can be implemented in a variety of ways by different stakeholders. Developers can help by ensuring that mobile applications encrypt data and API requests. Mobile network operators should deploy tools to detect vulnerabilities on their networks and prevent attacks on their infrastructure. And so on.
Why securing mobile networks is important
Mobile technology can’t keep advancing if mobile networks are insecure. This is especially true given the sensitive nature of data that is often transmitted via mobile networks. In addition to data associated with conventional applications and servers, mobile networks may also serve as vectors for personal health information, data related to critical infrastructure, and much more.
In addition, there is evidence that threat actors are increasingly targeting mobile networks. Telecom providers have seen a surge in Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in 2022, a sign that attackers are keen on disrupting or breaching the sensitive data and applications accessible via mobile networks.
11 requirements for mobile network security
Those are the challenges that the mobile ecosystem faces on the security front. Now, let’s look at eleven key points that can help to address these challenges at all layers of the mobile solution stack.
It’s often said that visibility is the foundation for security, and mobile networks are no exception.
In the context of mobile networks, visibility means the ability to identify which devices are connected to the network, what data is passing through the network, and which data can be read by whom. Visibility also entails tracking network patterns to detect unusual activity, which could signal security threats.
All of this must be done even on mobile networks that include millions or more devices — a scenario that will increasingly become the norm as IoT infrastructure expands.
2. Access control
Mobile networks shouldn’t be a wild west where any device can connect at any time. Instead, they should include strong access controls that grant access only when devices are legitimate.
Of course, the big challenge in enforcing access control on mobile networks is that when you deal with potentially millions of devices, you can’t simply create lists of approved devices. It would be best if you had a way of automatically assessing each device’s identity that requests access, then determining whether you should grant access. If so, you need to decide which specific types of activity the device can perform on the network based on policies that govern the categories of devices and activities configured for mobile networks.
3. Signaling attack detection & prevention
Because mobile networks rely heavily on control signals to manage communications, they are at high risk of so-called signaling attacks or signal storms. In this type of attack, threat actors flood the network with bogus signals to disrupt normal operations. However, signaling attacks also include MiTM and packet sniffing attacks, and location tracking schemes.
Fortunately, researchers have developed analytics methods that make it possible to detect these types of attacks in their early stages, then block their source before they cause severe disruptions. To ensure cellular network security, network operators should deploy signaling attack detection tools and ensure they have protocols in place to react quickly when such attacks occur.
4. Supply chain attack detection & prevention
So-called software supply chain attacks — in which attackers compromise software developers use to build other applications — have drawn widespread attention since the U.S. federal government issued guidance on securing supply chains in 2021.
However, supply chain risks have been an issue for mobile networks for years. They can be tough to detect due to the wide variety of mobile device types and operating system environments. Given this diversity, it’s challenging to establish profiles of which types of end-user applications and configurations can be considered secure and free of threats that originated in the supply chain.
Yet, securing the mobile supply chain is critical for securing mobile networks. For the most part, this is a task that must be handled at the mobile device level by software developers, who should ensure that they know where their software comes from and which risks may lurk within it.
5. Zero trust architecture
In a zero-trust architecture, no mobile device is deemed secure by default. Instead, it is isolated until it can be explicitly guaranteed to be secure, based on scanning and profiling. While you can apply zero-trust policies in any environment, they are essential within mobile networks that operate on an enormous scale.
6. Data encryption
Given the vast quantities of data transmitted over mobile networks and the high sensitivity of much of that data, encrypting that data is foundational for mobile device security.
Fortunately, mobile networks have encrypted traffic by default for a long time, and 5G makes network encryption stronger. However, it’s essential for mobile developers and operators not to rest on their laurels. Encryption algorithms can sometimes contain bugs that allow attackers to decrypt data, and attackers may innovate new ways of intercepting data even if it is nominally encrypted. Thus, mobile network stakeholders need to remain proactive in maintaining solid data encryption.
7. Network isolation & slicing security
Network slicing, which allows operators to divide physical networks into virtualized “slices” that provide different levels and types of network resources, is essential to building flexible, scalable networks. It is one of the features offered by 5G networks that make them an attractive choice for businesses and service providers.
But it also presents security risks. When networks are categorized, it becomes easier for attackers to home in on certain types of devices or certain users, which in turn can facilitate threats such as Denial of Service attacks and data theft.
Network operators must, therefore, continuously monitor for signs of these attacks. They should also design their network slices intelligently to mitigate the ability of attackers to isolate specific types of devices or applications based on their location within the network.
8. Firewalls, IDS/IPS and anti-DDoS
Firewalls, Intrusion Detection/Prevent Systems (IDS/IPS), and anti-DDoS tools are classic solutions for helping to secure any network. And while these tools alone don’t fully meet the needs of mobile network security, they remain potent resources in this context.
Operators should deploy firewalls to filter traffic. They can use IDS/IPS systems to detect unusual traffic patterns that may be signs of a breach. And they can employ anti-DDoS tools to block devices that seem to be flooding the traffic with invalid requests to disrupt communications.
9. Monitoring & automation
Mobile networks’ vast size and constantly changing nature make continuous monitoring and automated remediation essential. There is far too much data to collect and analyze and far too many threats to remediate, to rely on manual oversight alone.
In practice, mobile network monitoring and automation mean, for example, automatically detecting devices that may host malware and then automatically blocking them with firewall rules.
10. Vulnerability management
Detecting and remediating vulnerabilities is another core security best practice that must be fully extended to mobile networks. In this context, vulnerability management entails scanning devices for known risks, such as the presence of malware or misconfigurations that could allow attackers to compromise devices as part of a Denial of Service exploit. When vulnerabilities are discovered, devices should be isolated from the network until the vulnerabilities are corrected.
11. Secure upgrades & patching policies
Applying software patches to mitigate security threats is crucial in any environment. But on 5G mobile networks, there are strict rules regarding how and when operators must apply patches in particular.
To keep regulators happy, then, and secure devices, network operators must ensure that they keep their virtual switches, functions, containers and orchestration tooling, and other resources constantly updated. Devices, too, should be patched by vendors against security risks.
Secure your mobile network stack
Network security is challenging in any context. But it’s incredibly complicated — and the stakes are exceptionally high — when dealing with mobile networks, given their enormous scale and highly dynamic nature.
As the only security solution purpose-built for defending mobile networks, FirstPoint helps prevent mobile security risks of all types from reaching devices. Learn more about how FirstPoint delivers peace of mind for mobile network operators, device vendors, and software developers.