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Middle East's 5G Acceleration May Pose Serious Security Issues

Telcos across the Middle East are rapidly rolling out 5G networks. Will this accelerated adoption lead to higher security vulnerabilities?

4 Min Read
A blue mesh around the globe with Africa and the Middle East in view
Source: NicoElNino via Alamy Stock Photo

When 5G technology was introduced at the tail end of 2019, few enterprises understood its use or what applications could benefit from it. Similarly, the consumer market was only mildly intrigued, with many devices still content to operate on 4G bandwidth. Now, in late 2023, the outlook is very different, especially in the Middle East.

According to a report by GSMA Intelligence, by 2025 there will be around 50 million 5G connections in the Middle East and Africa (ME&A) region, with around 20 million in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The GCC Arab states will be slightly ahead of the global average by 2025, with 16% adoption (5G as a percentage of total mobile connections), compared with 15% globally, the report predicts.

Implementation of 5G across the Middle East didn't happen overnight — the COVID-19 pandemic slowed many rollout plans across the region, but 2023 has seen most of these rollouts put back on track. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have rapidly launched 5G networks and marketed attractive mobile packages to consumers to encourage them to opt for 5G devices.

With large-scale projects being deployed in these countries for consumer and commercial markets, the transition to 5G is a timely and crucial one. Yet this faster bandwidth and exciting new tech brings its own suite of security problems, with the concern that 5G needs closer monitoring and regulations to keep it as secure as previous bandwidths.

5G Aims to Solve Pressing Problems in the Middle East

The appeal of 5G goes far more than just being able to stream 4K video in the palm of your hand. Telecom provider Etisalat recently announced a partnership with Response Plus Holding to introduce 5G-powered ambulances in the UAE. This will enable faster connectivity between first responders and medical practitioners, allowing remote diagnosis and real-time updates before a patient has even arrived for treatment.

In Saudi Arabia, the ambitious Neom project will host a 5G network powered by STC, which aims to run segments including Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, virtual reality, smart homes, autonomous vehicles, and security services. This 5G network provides the advanced networking infrastructure necessary to overcome bottlenecks and bandwidth limitations of current 4G hardware.

5G Security Concerns Loom Large

The most important question is: What kind of complicated security implications might this rapid 5G rollout create? There are many different angles to consider for organizations to secure and monitor hardware and software continuously.

For instance, there are a limited number of 5G hardware manufacturers. Should a security flaw occur in one network device, it potentially will affect hundreds of other linked devices or remote networks that use the same hardware. The hardware manufacturer's ability to deploy a security update in a timely manner becomes critical to prevent leaving large networks of devices prone to further security breaches.

Using equipment from a mix of vendors can produce similar problems. If standards are not implemented properly to ensure that all devices are communicating with each other in a secure manner, it could leave room for backdoors or similar security vulnerabilities.

One of the core advantages of 5G is its flexibility to scale as required, primarily through virtualization of various services instead of requiring separate physical servers or devices. While this makes deployment easier, it introduces a new realm of potential problems. Should a virtual machine (VM) become compromised, it may be harder to track down and isolate, or worse still, it could amplify the damage to other connected VMs or devices.

The interconnectivity and bandwidth of 5G means that distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks can generate larger packets of data during an attack and can become harder to trace or shut down effectively.

Minimum Standards for Securing 5G Networks

Securing 5G networks is not a simple one-off approach due to the complexity of these networks. At minimum, all inter- and intra-network traffic must be properly encrypted to levels greater than existing 4G networks.

Next, new 5G network architectures should be utilized to provide adequate application layer security to protect against eavesdropping and related attacks. Proper security measures such as containerization should also be applied to virtual environments so that physical resources cannot be hijacked by a security threat.

These are just some of the early precautions that should be taken for 5G implementation, as more and more countries in the Middle East look to harness superior networking capabilities to improve the lives of their citizens.

About the Author(s)

Nick Rego, Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer

Nick has been writing about the tech industry for over 15 years, and has a keen interest in keeping up with the latest consumer tech trends. He has exclusively covered growing tech developments across the Middle East, and has previously written for leading tech publications such as TechRadar, PC Magazine, and T3.

An avid gamer as well, Nick is a Dubai native where he has witnessed the accelerated adoption of the city's digital-first attitude and ambitious growth for the future.

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