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The glacial pace of cellular security standards: From 3GPP to 5G

mobile_everythingSecurity standards for cellular communications are pretty much invisible. The security standards, created by groups like the 3GPP, play out behind the scenes, embedded into broader cellular protocols like 3G, 4G, LTE and the oft-discussed forthcoming 5G. Due to the nature of the security and other cellular specs, they evolve very slowly and deliberately; it’s a snail-like pace compared to, say, WiFi or Bluetooth.

Why the glacial pace? One reason is that cellular standards of all sorts must be carefully designed and tested in order to work in a transparent global marketplace. There are also a huge number of participants in the value chain, from handset makers to handset firmware makers to radio manufacturers to tower equipment to carriers… the list goes on and on.

Another reason why cellular software, including security protocols and algorithms goes slowly is that it’s all bound up in large platform versions. The current cellular security system is unlikely to change significantly before the roll-out of 5G… and even then, older devices will continue to use the security protocols embedded in their platform, unless a bug forces a software patch. Those security protocols cover everything from authentication of the cellular device to the tower, to the authentication of the tower to the device, to encryption of voice and data traffic.

We can only hope that end users will move swiftly to 5G. Why? because 4G and older platforms aren’t incredibly secure. Sure, they are good enough today, but that’s only “good enough.” The downside is that everything is pretty fuzzy when it comes to what 5G will actually offer… or even how many 5G standards there will be.

Read more in my story in Pipeline Magazine, “Wireless Security Standards.”

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