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Infopulse - Expert Software Engineering, Infrastructure Management Services

Security in Telecom: 5 Current Cyber Threats and Solutions

Reading time: 8 minutes

Communication networks need to be resilient. Especially, as the scope, variety, and complexity of current cybersecurity threats are increasing exponentially. The growing volume of data transmissions, legacy technology, and signaling protocols, the increased role of cloud technologies and “old-fashioned” DNS and DDoS attacks are among the most common “bullets” telcos need to dodge on a daily basis. Let’s take a closer look at the key of them.

The Main Types of Cyber Threats and Ways to Mitigate Them

SS7 and Diameter Signalling Threats

A number of core telecommunication services are still powered by flawed protocols such as  (Signalling System No. 7) or  . SS7 protocol, in particular, has become one of the central cyber threats to the banking industry since hackers can easily   codes and drain users’ accounts.

Newer protocols such as   (Session Initiation Protocol) can also be extremely vulnerable to cyber threats without proper controls in place. For instance, in 2018 a   managed to stage a denial of service (DoS) attack on Cisco equipment through leveraging malformed SIP traffic.

However, implementing better signaling controls is proving to be a challenge for most telecoms due to the following:

  • Overall complexity
  • Privacy concerns
  • Global title leasing
  • Supply chain issues
  • Network misconfigurations
  • Traffic integrity

Granted, according to a  , most telecoms have implemented the basic security measures for SS7 attacks:

Basic security measures for SS7 attacks - 1

Cybersecurity Best Practices For SS7 and Diameter Protocols

  • Exhaustive monitoring that covers all interconnect and outgoing traffic, as well as core network elements.
  • Harden network nodes by implementing better firewall configuration rules.
  • Conduct regular external network security assessments and penetration tests.
  • Implement real-time anomaly detection systems to identify more advanced attacks and their prequels.

Also, keep an eye on updates from the  organized by GSMA that is working on new end-to-end interconnect security solutions for LTE and 5G networks.

SIP Hacking

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), used in most voice-over-IP (VoIP) communications, is another prime target for malicious parties. Without proper security measures, hackers can easily tap into encrypter calls, distribute SIP malware and otherwise tamper with the VoIP services you are provisioning.

Here’s a list of cybersecurity threats that were common in 2019:

  • SIP trunk hacking
  • SIP toll fraud
  • Eavesdropping
  • Caller ID spoofing
  • DDoS attacks on PBX systems

Utility suppliers in the US faced a   last year. An attacker was initially targeting 1,500 unique gateways tied to some 600 businesses, but later focused on a single company and, using a command-injection technique over HTTP, injected a malicious web shell into the company’s server outgoing directory. Granted, the hack was discovered in time before much damage had been done.

Best Practices for Protecting SIP Signalling

  • Enforce strong encryption over your Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Real-Time Protocol (RTP) to protect all data transmissions.
  • Implement anti-spoofing for SIP messages. Ensure that you have proper in-built mechanisms for challenging messages and authenticating SIP clients.
  • Maintain strong Session Border Controller (SBC) controls that perform deep packet inspection of all SIP messages and prevent unauthorized SIP traffic.

DNS Attacks

DNS (Domain Name Security) attacks still remain a major sore point for telcos. What’s worse, the cost of such attacks is increasing year-over-year. In 2017, one attack cost a telecom company  . In 2018, the figure rose by 42% and reached $886,560 on average. To a large extent, this drastic increase can be attributed to slow response time: on average 3 employees need 17+ hours to mitigate such cybersecurity threats.

Another   indicates that telecom providers had the highest volume (30%) of sensitive customer information stolen through DNS attacks when compared to healthcare, banking, education, and public services sectors. In general, 43% of telecom companies were victims of DNS-based malware and 81% needed 3+ days to apply a critical security patch.

What this data is telling us is that most telecoms are completely unprepared for the latest cyber threats from this group. So, let’s brush up on the key security measures.

DNS Attack Prevention Best Practices

  • Switch from a reactive to a proactive approach to cybersecurity. Start applying adaptive countermeasures.
  • Implement real-time analytics for DNS transactions and gradually build up a behavioral threat detection suite, capable of detecting both known and emerging cyber threats and protect against data theft/leaks.
  • Enhance your firewalls with ML-driven response policies on traffic to suspicious hostnames.
  • Implement query monitoring and logging for all suspicious endpoints.

DDoS Attacks

Telcos are the prime target for DDoS attacks. As much as   of the global DDoS attacks in 2018 were aimed at communication services providers and the figure still remains high in 2020. Another   reveals that the following DNS attacks are on the rise too:

  • Multivector attacks – targeting several protocols at once – increased by 65% in the fourth quarter of last year.
  • DNS amplification is the most popular current cyber threat for DDoS attackers. In 2019, it has been present in one-third of all attacks.
  • The average bandwidth attack increased to 5 Gbps in 2019 – up from 2 Gbps in 2016.
  • Corrupt cloud servers are under fire too. The volume of DDoS attacks involving these increased to 51%.

Arguably, the biggest issue with DDoS attacks for telcos is that a large-scale attack could easily create a domino effect. For instance, an operator network overload would likely affect a customer who co-resides or is reliant on the infrastructure transporting the attack.

How Telcos Can Protect Against DDoS Attacks

  • Set up robust Access control lists (ACL) – your first line of defense. Note, however, that ACL has a scaling issue. A rapid increase of temporary ACLs, built to resist a large-scale attack, can have a major performance impact on different router hardware and software, making the overall management rather challenging. Thus, it’s best to write several scripts for automatic router configuration and ACL management.
  • Implement black hole scrubbing – a variation of the block hole filtering technique. In this case, the traffic is redirected to a different physical interface – a scrubbing center – that can weed out the good traffic from the malicious one. A number of software vendors offer such solutions.
  • Real-time DDoS monitoring is a must. The best-of-breed tools are now powered with machine learning functionality, meaning their detection accuracy progressively increases over time.

IoT Network Security

By 2021,   estimates that some 25 billion IoT devices will be connected to telecom networks. Accommodating such an increased volume of data is just one part of the challenge though. Preventing unauthorized access, securing data transmissions and ensuring smooth monitoring of a much larger attack surface are the key security challenges for telcos.

Despite low adoption, IoT devices have already proven to present both internal and external threats to cybersecurity. First of all, the device itself can be exposed to various cyber threats and vulnerabilities due to manufacturing issues. Secondly, misconfiguration and lack of proper security measures make an IoT device an easy entry-point to the entire network of devices, or worse – the supporting architecture. In short, most attackers will have an easier way of finding a leeway as the surface of attack increases.

Some of the common types of cybersecurity threats happening at network level are as follows:

  • Network congestion
  • RFIDs interference and spoofing
  • Node jamming in WSN
  • Eavesdropping attacks
  • Sybil attacks
  • DDoS attacks
  • Routing attacks

Offering solid protection against these is a joint responsibility between network operators and IoT users.

ebook: Innovative Security Approaches to Enable Digital Business Transformation

IoT Cybersecurity Best Practices

GSMA has already developed a comprehensive   for telcos, along with several supporting documents with security guidelines. Below are some of the key best practices the association proposes against common cybersecurity threats:

  • Network operators should use UICC based mechanisms for the secure identification of IoT devices. You can also provide single sign-on services for devices but mind the security trade-offs.
  • Enable secure authentication for all devices, networks and service platforms associated with an IoT Service.
  • Offer data encryption services to IoT service providers to ensure high communication integrity and increase network resilience.
  • Deploy private networks to support various IoT networks. These can be developed using Layer Two Tunnelling Protocol (L2TP) and secured with Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) as illustrated below:

Basic security measures for SS7 attacks - 1

To Conclude

Telecom players have both an exciting and complex time ahead. On the one hand, the industry is undergoing major transformations, resulting in new revenue opportunities and value streams. On the other hand, an increased presence of new assets (such as IoT devices) and increased pressure on the old communication protocols enlarges the defense perimeter every telco needs to create.

Ultimately, to protect your networks against the pervasive cybersecurity threats in the telecom industry, you will need to switch from reactive security to proactive – one that relies on extensive monitoring and has predictive capabilities, powered by advanced analytics and AI. Conduct proper risk assessments for current systems, decentralize and automate the core security requirements with appropriate tools and run even deeper assessments for emerging technologies such as IoT, 5G, and NFV among others.

Having strong telecom expertise, Infopulse also provides a comprehensive scope of enterprise IT security services ranging from preliminary security assessments to comprehensive Security Operations Center (SOC) as a service. Let’s work together on strengthening your network resilience and future-proofing your operations against emerging threats!


About the Author

Photo of Alla Oliinyk

Alla Oliinyk

Engagement Manager, Telecom Practice

Alla Oliinyk is an established expert with 9+ years of experience in the telecom industry and wholesale voice/SMS traffic exchange. She has broad expertise in managing cross-functional teams responsible for various telecom operations activities. Alla participated in numerous successful projects, including a decade-lasting collaboration with BICS, receiving both personal and team awards for managing client relations with the most demanding customers and outstanding contribution to the company's development.

Originally published   April 07, 2020 Updated   October 21, 2020