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Mobile Networks: The New Battleground Where Signaling Security is the Weakest Link

October 2023 by Enea

We are now witnessing the first real cyberwar, with mobile networks being weaponized on and off the battlefield. The very technology that connects us may also be our weakest link. That’s the message from Enea’s recent handbook, which outlines how mobile signaling – the silent operator behind our calls, messages, and data transfers – might also be the Achille’s heel of our digital age.

Why is this so crucial? Because a breach in mobile signaling doesn’t just mean a dropped call or a delayed text. It can lead to unauthorized access to user data, intercepted communications, and even state-sponsored espionage. The cyber warfare tactics employed in the war in Ukraine are a chilling testament to this, where the digital environment has overlapped dangerously with the physical battlefield.

These risks are explored in detail in a new handbook authored by Rowland Corr, VP & Head of Government Relations at Enea. The handbook is titled “Why Signaling Security Will Make or Break Mobile Network Resilience: A Handbook for Mobile Network Regulators and Operators” and was written to give regulators and operators an understanding of the fundamentals of signaling and the associated vulnerabilities. Here are some of the topics covered:
The First Real Cyberwar

As the report starkly puts it, “We are now witnessing the first real cyberwar.” The Russian effort to exploit vulnerabilities in network signaling systems has been a significant but underreported element of the digital onslaught against Ukraine. This warfare underscores the intricate relationship between mobile telecommunications, signaling, and critical infrastructure.
What is Mobile Signaling

An overview of the role that signaling plays in the mobile ecosystem and why this has historically been left out of the cybersecurity conversation.
The Vulnerability of Signaling Systems

Mobile signaling, especially the still ubiquitous Signaling System 7 (SS7) protocol, is riddled with vulnerabilities exploited by state-level threat actors in offensive cyber operations worldwide. Today, the exploitation of signaling vulnerabilities involves threats to confidentiality and integrity as well as to availability of data and services across all mobile generations. The comparatively low maturity of recognition, reporting requirements and resourcing addressing signaling undermines cyber resilience and poses a unique threat to national security as victims are uniquely powerless to protect themselves.
The Need for a High Benchmark

Basic or so-called baseline security measures are not enough. The key to enhancing signaling security lies in establishing a high, common benchmark for protection. This involves moving beyond static configurations and adopting a proactive, adaptive, and aligned approach to cyber defense.
Operator Blindspots:

Many operators today lack fit for purpose signaling protection to detect significant incidents. Without mature incident reporting frameworks and the capabilities to support them and make threats visible in the first place, telecoms threat sharing will remain nascent and ultimately ineffective while hostile targeting campaigns and data leakage go undiscovered
A Call for a Mission-Oriented Approach

The handbook emphasizes the need for a mission-oriented approach that brings together private, public, and tertiary sectors. This approach should be aligned with the interests of civil society to transform our approach to communication and connectivity.

In a world underscored by mobile connectivity, it’s essential that the very networks that uphold this connectivity are fortified against threats. Enea’s handbook is a clarion call to operators, regulators, and the industry at large, emphasizing that when it comes to mobile network resilience, signaling security is not just a technical concern—it’s a matter of global safety.

Dive into the full handbook to understand the intricacies of mobile signaling and the urgent actions needed to safeguard our interconnected world.

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