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Compromised by Connection: 5G Will Unite Cities and Also Put Them at Risk

Watch enough old science fiction movies, and you’re bound to look outside and wonder why the cars on the road don’t drive themselves, why the litter on the sidewalk hasn’t been cleaned up by drones, and why robots aren’t whizzing by with bags full of groceries. The present, it seems, has failed to make good on past promises of the future. 

Of course, it’s not as if these promises are fundamentally unfeasible — autonomous vehicles, intelligent drones, and other smart machines have been in development for years. And yet, despite the fast-acting technologies that define the modern era, truly instant communication has thus far proved elusive. Innovations like self-driving cars cannot afford even minute delays while zipping past each other on the highway, and this shortcoming has held us back from a future well within our reach.

In 2020, however, that will change with the global implementation of 5G. The fifth generation of cellular networks will deliver unprecedented wireless speeds, transforming our devices, our cities, and ultimately, our lives in ways we cannot fully anticipate. Just how fast is 5G? Whereas 4G connections today download data at around 100 Megabits per second, 5G devices can theoretically support upwards of 10 Gigabits per second. Put another way, that’s the difference between an ordinary adult running and an F-22 fighter jet at top speed. The result of fighter-jet-fast internet will not only be transformative technologies, increased connectivity, and a new era of smart cities, but also — unfortunately — a new wave of cyber-attacks targeting our most critical infrastructure.

A 5G-Powered Planet

Forecasting that 2020 will be “the year of 5G” no longer qualifies as a bold prediction. Billions of dollars’ worth of 5G rollouts are scheduled for the coming year, which will bring the emergent technology to countries around the world. 

It is difficult to overstate the advantages of near-instant 5G communication. Reducing connectivity delays from seconds to milliseconds will enable extensive municipal networks, which could integrate existing smart sensors with new webs of self-driving vehicles, AI-monitored surveillance cameras, maintenance-performing robots, and a limitless collection of other internet-connected things — all sharing data in real time. 

Far less discussed, but arguably just as important, is the impact such rollouts will have on the cyber security challenges of smart city infrastructure — and, by extension, on the billions of people who depend on that infrastructure each and every day.

The traditional approach to defending cities’ complex, connected systems uses historical data to anticipate known threats against well-understood machines, a strategy that has already broken down in the face of novel attacks that exploit the ever-changing Internet of Things. Smart cities have long embraced such IoT devices, including traffic sensors and electricity meters designed to boost the efficiency of public services. 

The arrival of 5G will fuel an explosion of never-before-seen IoT machines, introducing uncharted vulnerabilities and opening the door for cyber-criminals to compromise our increasingly intertwined cities. Whether they attempt to steal sensitive taxpayer data, hijack transportation grids, or sabotage critical infrastructure, these criminals present risks that we must address proactively. And because their attacks will strike and spread at machine speed, containing them will require the ability to react faster than any human can. 

Preempting the Unpredictable

IoT devices already outnumber human beings, and by 2025, it is estimated there will be more than 64 billion globally, driven in no small part by 5G innovations. One obvious challenge for security teams tasked with safeguarding so many new devices is simply gaining awareness of when they come online. Already, companies and governments struggle to achieve visibility over the IoT — the organizations I work with are almost never aware of every device on their networks. The 5G revolution, meanwhile, will magnify the problem exponentially, at least barring an immediate shift in our tactics.

Beyond visibility, the greatest obstacle standing in the way of a secure 5G world is the heterogeneity of such 5G-enabled devices. What exactly these smart sensors and IoT robots will look like is anyone’s guess, and so too are the cyber-threats that will exploit them. Given this uncertainty, we must replace the old model of predicting the nature of future threats based on historical data — and then expecting humans to respond in time. 

Some of the latest security tools employ an entirely different approach: leveraging cyber AI algorithms that learn how each unique device works on the fly, the moment they join a network, without predefining anything. This understanding of normalcy shines a light on subtle shifts in activity that accompany cyber-attacks, which the AI can autonomously shut off before damage can be done. And as criminals begin to target cities with their own AI-powered attacks, the imperative of fighting back with artificial intelligence will only grow. 

Such cyber AI systems may prove to be our best chance at defending the cities of tomorrow, but regardless, there is no doubt that now is the time for these cities to rethink their approach to security. Thanks to 5G, the sci-fi future that Hollywood promised us may become a reality after all. The question, then, is whether we’re prepared to protect it.

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Justin Fier is the Director for Cyber Intelligence & Analytics at Darktrace, based in Washington D.C. With over 10 years of experience in cyber defense, Fier has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Fier is a highly-skilled technical officer, and a specialist in cyber operations across both offensive and defensive arenas.