5G & Digital Forensic Impact

Written by Amber Schroader

February 28, 2020

5G is the next generation of high-speed wireless internet and it promises to be a game-changer for connectivity speeds.  It will bring faster speeds and lower latency which will enable a wide range of new applications for business and consumers.    5G is designed to be more robust than previous generations, surpassing 4G by at least a factor of 10, but 5G security is also much more complicated to manage.

5G operates like other cellular networks and uses a system of cell sites that divide up their various regions into sectors and send encoded data via radio waves.   Each of the cell sites is connected to a network backbone through either a wired or wireless connection.   5G uses a type of encoding called orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) which is similar to the encoding method that 4G uses, however, the 5G interface is designed to offer a few key differences: larger channels for better data speeds, lower latency for better response and the ability to connect to more devices at once.

Impact and Changes to Security

5G is poised to enable a very large number of connected devices commonly known as the Internet of Things, or IoT.  Due to this significantly increased number of connections, there will be more vectors through which an adversary can attack and thus creating an increased security threat.   Unfortunately, this challenge is only further complicated when new 5G use-cases, such as connected vehicles and medical devices, are introduced that have very specific security requirements.   5G is also based on virtualized networks and these networks will need to be governed and protected by robust and effective protocols.

Impact and Challenges to Digital Forensics

5G will certainly bring great benefits, there will be some new challenges that will change what forensic data is available on mobile devices.   Currently, unique identifiers associated with smartphones and other mobile devices are valuable data points for law enforcement and investigators as it provides valuable information about the user.   5G’s virtualized architecture will replace this unique identifier with a temporary one when it connects to a cell tower, repeating this process as new connections are established.   This abstracted relationship between the mobile device and the cell towers could quickly become very complex and unclear making it more difficult for investigators to gain meaningful information about the owner of the device.

As 5G rolls out new security solutions will quickly follow.  Since 5G allows for devices to obtain some of its data from a network tower and other parts through other network connections, this will create a fragmented digital trail that must be secured.  The re-vamped, or potentially brand-new, approach to securing these environments will likely create additional challenges for the gathering and processing of evidence in 5G environments. The digital evidence with 5G will exist in a variety of devices and locations making the collection of that data very difficult.

5G networks are coming, and while they will bring a huge number of benefits and new capabilities, they will also introduce a new batch of cybersecurity concerns and challenges for forensic investigators, and these challenges will come more to the forefront as more people and organizations rely on this new system.

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