Securing National Communications Infrastructure

This article was published in Cyber Security Intelligence on November 27, 2023. You can read the original article here  

Data security and protection are of utmost importance, particularly for governments and telecommunication companies that are responsible for safeguarding this valuable asset. 

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through advanced technologies like 5G and fixed broadband networks, robust security measures are more critical today than ever before.

The recent formation of the Global Coalition on Telecommunications (GCOT) by the UK and four international partners signals a collaborative effort to strengthen national infrastructure against state-sponsored threat actors. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the challenges go beyond simply investigating external networks.

Huawei & The State-Sponsored Threat

The controversy surrounding Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has been a focal point in discussing state-sponsored threats these past years. Allegations of espionage and network shutdowns have heightened concerns about protecting data and the UK’s critical infrastructure. At the height of its controversial coverage, a reported 47% of Britons believed in a threat posed by the Chinese company and called for sanctions against the firm. In response, a designated vendor direction document was issued to 35 telecom companies, calling for Huawei technology to be removed from the UK’s 5G public networks by the end of 2027.

Despite mounting concerns, smaller companies often turn to Huawei due to its competitive pricing. This reliance on Huawei's technology, even with its known risks, has led to the proliferation of their equipment in 5G and fixed networks, raising questions about the overall security posture of the UK telecommunications industry.

Telecoms Under ‘siege’

Despite the UK Government’s global initiatives to crack down on state-sponsored threats, a recent Google Cloud report highlights a surge in cyberattacks on telecom companies during Q1 2023. The global telecoms sector has experienced a staggering 85% of the top 1,000 distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks during this period, and this raises the question as to where these attacks are coming from. Despite state-sponsored threat actors being linked to numerous incidents, an often-overlooked aspect is the ability to scrutinise our own networks and re-direct the security focus there. These findings underscore the urgency for a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity that extends beyond merely investigating external, international threats. 

Technology from various sources continues to find its way into UK networks, which means constructing a new approach that enhances security first while providing the flexibility to adapt to evolving threats without a complete overhaul of physical equipment. This includes upgrading legacy tech infrastructure to meet modern security requirements and fostering international security information sharing. By doing so, both public and private security teams can better anticipate and respond to emerging threats, creating a more resilient telecommunications ecosystem. 

Introducing A New Approach - Network Disaggregation

It’s also essential to address the fact that operators need to balance security and cost efficiency. This challenging task requires careful consideration of various factors, including network architecture, security protocols, and operational costs. So, how can they build secure networks without compromising on costs? 

One promising way to enhance telecom security is through network disaggregation. This involves decoupling hardware and software, allowing for the combination of open components to form a complete switching and routing device.

Telcos can purchase white-box hardware from anywhere globally and run independent software from a trusted source, minimising security risks. As foreign threats often lie in the software aspect of the network, not the hardware, telcos can purchase cheaper hardware and couple it with trusted software to create a cost-effective network with little security risk. Should a security concern arise, the ability to switch software without vendor lock-in adds a layer of adaptability and flexibility.

The decoupling of hardware and software provides network characteristics that enhance security as network disaggregation: enables quick software updates and patches, facilitates the selection of best-of-breed security tools from different vendors, reduces risks associated with vendor lock-in, provides granular security controls for precise configuration, enables isolation and segmentation to contain breaches, supports custom security implementations, allows scalable security architecture independent of hardware, offers centralised management for enhanced visibility and control, and ensures secure boot and hardware verification to only run trusted components on routing devices.

Securing The Future Of Our Networks

Overall, network disaggregation addresses key security concerns and offers scalability, allowing telco operators to expand their networks by adding and removing white boxes as needed. This flexibility aligns with the dynamic nature of cyber threats, ensuring that telecommunications networks can evolve without compromising security.

As the telecommunications industry grapples with the challenges posed by state-sponsored threat actors, it is important to adopt a comprehensive strategy beyond investigating external networks.

Going forward, the UK government has demonstrated its commitment through a £70 million round of funding for Future Telecoms Research Hubs, which is a step in the right direction. However, embracing network disaggregation is a natural step in protecting the UK’s critical national infrastructure against external threats ensuring a resilient and secure digital future for all.