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How 5G secures a digital future

Addressing the speed and scale of digital change is one of the most pressing issues for global decision makers. 5G offers a more secure, more connected future, but this requires all stakeholders to work together to build a transparent, open and equitable environment.


The issue that most concerns Europe’s business decision makers is a very 21st century concern: Cyberattacks.


Asset bubbles, energy price shocks and fiscal crises are three of the largest threats to Europe, according to a survey of business leaders as part of the World Economic Forum’s Regional Risks For Doing Business Report last year. But they are not the biggest threat. The issue that most concerns Europe’s business decision makers is a very 21st century concern: Cyberattacks.

It is perhaps unsurprising. There is an enormous range of possible attack vectors. There are the traditional risks we associate with technology, such as phishing, malware, man-in-the-middle attacks and unsecured devices, and then there are emerging threats, like ransomware, cryptojacking, and compromised IOT devices.


The perpetrators of such attacks are equally diverse. “The threat actors we need to mitigate range from ‘lone wolf’ individuals, to organised crime, and even nation-state level organisations,” says Chris Sutherland, Director of ZTE’s European Security Lab. Even employees could be unwitting threat actors. ‘Shadow IT’, or the use of unapproved systems and services has always been a business risk. However, in a post-covid-19 era of hastily improvised home-working arrangements, employees working with potentially vulnerable third-party solutions seems almost inevitable.


Into this environment, is the on-going rollout of 5G. Widespread deployment of 5G will make for ubiquitous connectivity, define the future of digital infrastructure, and integrate our society more deeply than ever before. “The main challenge will come from the new digital landscape that will exponentially increase the number of IoT devices,” says Antonio Neto Relvas, ZTE’s Director of Cybersecurity Strategy, “These devices will have greater control over critical assets and crucial data, from smart cities to our homes, and from utilities and industrial production to businesses.”


This raises an important question: How does our 5G future fit into the cybersecurity picture?

  • Widespread deployment of 5G will make for ubiquitous connectivity
  • 5G will define the future of digital infrastructure
  • It will integrate our society more deeply than ever before
  • With it comes an enormous range of possible attack vectors



The 5G security challenge

Compared to previous generations of cellular connectivity, 5G is at a significantly more secure standard. Unlike previous generations of mobile technology, 5G networks are virtualised, which makes it possible to use software to slice networks into segments, treating them as almost entirely separate entities without requiring additional hardware. This can be used, for example, to separate critical business functions such as the control of autonomous vehicles or emergency communications from general users. Network slicing can both guarantee bandwidth availability and adds an extra layer of security separation.

“The security enhancement on 5G is unprecedented,” says Zhong Hong, ZTE’s Chief Security Officer. He points to how the technology has improved Authentication and Key Agreement (AKA) capabilities, as well as more secure unique identifiers for devices. This makes it even harder to carry out attacks where the identity of a base station is forged, so that devices will connect to it instead, enabling traffic to be intercepted. There are also new protections against “downgrade” attacks, in which an attacker will attempt to trick a device into switching from a more secure 5G connection to a lower security 4G or 3G connection. “To ensure 5G network security, 5G networks must be built secure by design and secure by default,” says Zhong Hong.

But this does not mean that 5G is not without security challenges. A 2019 paper published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers on the 5G-AKA authentication protocol discovered that network users can still be tracked if the information transmitted is unencrypted—or if security protocols are not implemented correctly. Potential flaws like this are why ZTE is deeply involved in standards development, has contributed to the iteration of 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) 5G security standards, and is a key stakeholder in ensuring a transparent 5G ecosystem.

ZTE has a deeply embedded culture of security and trust across all its business, but it is also working externally to project that security-first culture outwards. “In today’s environment, it is not enough to ensure that we have internally implemented a security governance process to address security assurance,” explains Relvas, “At ZTE we are committed to openness and transparency, by letting all stakeholders see and assess what we do and how we provide end-to-end security.” ZTE is committed to certifying its value chain to include all processes and products in all relevant schemes. The GSMA has conducted an assessment and independent audit of ZTE’s development and product lifecycle processes to evidence how security is integrated into their design, development, implementation, and maintenance processes. This assures that all ZTE products are compliant with common criteria and 3GPP standards.



Collaboration is key

In today’s globalised, interconnected world, any successful initiative must involve all stakeholders in the value chain. This is why ZTE makes it a priority to work closely with industry, regulators and standards bodies in the 5G ecosystem. “With 5G and the associated IoT landscape, there is a real need to drive towards a regulatory framework that covers the complexity of the supply chain of all actors: from network equipment suppliers, operators, IoT manufacturers to software solutions,” says Relvas.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of ZTE’s commitment to transparency and collaboration, however, is the company’s Cybersecurity Labs. The European labs in Rome and Brussels are testing grounds for reviewing and evaluating ZTE technology and operations. Equally importantly, the cybersecurity labs also act as open invitations to regulators, customers and other stakeholders to take a deep dive into ZTE’s products and solutions and examine them for themselves.

“ZTE welcomes independent assessments and audits in our cybersecurity labs, including source code review, document review and penetration testing, to verify our products, services and processes,” Relvas says, “We always consider suggestions and findings from customers and third parties to continuously improve, thus making networks more secure.”



Unlocking the opportunities

Key to unlocking the opportunities presented by 5G is a crafting unified response to the technical, economic and security issues it presents. “I believe that the use of a common framework is useful to avoid fragmentation or even misunderstanding,” suggests Alessandro Bassano, Director of ZTE’s Italian Cybersecurity Lab. One example of a multi-stakeholder response having a tangible impact is the EU 5G cybersecurity “toolbox” initiative, which saw EU institutions, member states and industry work together to design minimum security requirements for 5G networks, plan the development of an EU-wide certification scheme for standardising security objectives and interoperability, and create a framework for incident response and crisis management, for use in the event of a cyberattack.

While the toolbox has not yet been implemented in full, it stands as a clear example of how all industry stakeholders can work together for the betterment of all. Through collaboration, openness and transparency, it will be possible to ensure that the 5G future is a future that is secure.

Connect the unconnected

The transformative capability of 5G is no longer mere speculation. Today, there are already concrete examples of the “fourth industrial revolution” that is taking place, as new connective technology is enabling every industry it touches to work with greater efficiency and flexibility.



This article was produced by (E) BrandConnect, a commercial division of The Economist Group, which operates separately from the editorial staffs of The Economist and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Neither (E) BrandConnect nor its affiliates accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any party on this content.