In today’s digital world, MNOs need to put in strategies specifically focused on mitigating data risks. This is primarily because of the increasing risks and threats of cybercrime and attacks. Gartner states that organisations have become more vulnerable to cyber threats because of digital transformation and the reliance and integration of technology into day-to-day work. These attacks often target information and critical infrastructure, which can have several operational, financial, reputational and strategic consequences for an MNO and significant costs. It is, therefore, vital for MNOs to have strategies in place to mitigate these risks. We unpack the risks associated with data breaches and cybercrime and the strategies that can be deployed to prevent these attacks and breaches.
The Imperative for MNOs: Understanding Risks and Threats
With digital transformation has come a risk of the threat of data breaches and cyber-attacks. This is because MNOs handle vast amounts of sensitive customer data, including personal information, call records, text messages, and location data. Many cybercriminals want access to this data for various purposes such as identity theft, SIM card cloning, subscription fraud, eavesdropping on calls, SMS interception and other criminal activities.
Ensuring this data is kept safe and secure is critical to protecting subscribers’ privacy. In many countries, strict data protection laws and regulations have been implemented, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), currently the world’s toughest privacy and security law. MNOs are required to comply with these laws and regulations around data protection to ensure that customer data is secure. To remain compliant and protect consumer data against threats and breaches, MNOs must implement robust security measures and plans. If these measures are not put in place and are not robust enough, this can result in the following consequences:
- Damage to the integrity of the network – Attacks on the network can disrupt services, compromise network reliability, and impact customer satisfaction.
- Increased downtime and loss in profitability – Data security safeguards and protects the network infrastructure from cyberattacks. If not protected, this can lead to costly downtime and repairs.
- Breakdown trust and reputation – Trust is a critical factor for MNOs. Customers expect their data to be handled securely and confidentially. A data breach or security incident can, therefore, erode trust and damage the reputation of the MNO.
- Business continuity disruptions – Data breaches and cyberattacks can disrupt operations and lead to financial losses. Ensuring data security is essential for business continuity and long-term sustainability.
In summary, data security is not only a regulatory requirement but also a fundamental business and ethical imperative for MNOs. Protecting customer data, network infrastructure, and the overall integrity of services is essential for maintaining trust, complying with laws, and sustaining business growth in an increasingly interconnected and digital world. Below, we highlight the different types of data risks that MNOs are exposed to.
Types of Data Risks Relevant to MNOs
MNOs are exposed to several data risks and threats across all aspects of the business and its operations. These include:
IoT and Cloud Threats
IoT (Internet of Things) and cloud computing are rapidly evolving technologies that have significantly impacted how data is collected, processed, and stored. However, they have also introduced various data security threats to organisations.
IoT devices are susceptible to various security vulnerabilities, including weak authentication, outdated firmware, and default passwords. Cybercriminals can exploit these weaknesses to gain unauthorised access to the device and potentially the data it collects. These criminals can also intercept data transmitted between IoT devices and cloud servers if proper encryption and security measures are not in place. This can lead to data theft and unauthorised access.
Cybercriminals can also target cloud service providers. This could lead to data breaches where sensitive information is exposed. This often results from vulnerabilities in the cloud infrastructure, misconfigurations, or insider threats. If proper access controls are not in place, unauthorised users can gain access to cloud resources, leading to data theft, manipulation, or destruction.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) face various software and platform threats due to their critical role in providing cellular and data services. These threats can significantly affect network integrity, customer data, and service availability. Below are some of the common software and platform threats that MNOs need to be aware of:
- DDoS attacks – Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks can overwhelm MNO infrastructure, disrupting network services and causing service outages.
- Malware and ransomware – Malicious software can infect MNO systems and disrupt operations. Ransomware attacks can lock critical systems, demanding payment for their release.
- Phishing attacks – Phishing attempts can target MNO employees or customers, leading to credential theft or the installation of malware.
- Subscriber fraud – Criminals can use SIM card cloning, call or text message interception, or other fraudulent activities that impact MNO revenue and customer trust.
5G and 6G Threats
Due to their increased complexity and capabilities, the next generation of 5G and upcoming 6G networks bring several unique security challenges for MNOs.
With more devices connected to the network and a higher density of base stations, the attack surface for malicious cybercriminals expands. Due to this, MNOs need to work harder to protect their core networks, edge computing nodes, and various IoT devices.
With the introduction of network slicing, which allows MNOs to create multiple logical networks on a shared physical infrastructure, there is an increased risk of resource isolation failures and unauthorised access between slices, making the network more vulnerable to threats. Network slicing and edge computing also lead to privacy concerns as more data is processed at the network edge, potentially exposing sensitive information if not adequately protected.
Over and above the points mentioned above, the acceleration and move towards virtualised network functions and cloud-native architectures can also introduce security risks, such as vulnerabilities in virtualised infrastructure, container security, and orchestration systems.
Signalling Service Threats
Signalling service threats to an MNO refers to security risks and vulnerabilities associated with the signalling infrastructure of cellular networks. These threats can have significant implications for the security and integrity of mobile networks. Here are some common signalling service threats that MNOs need to be aware of and guard against:
- Signalling protocol vulnerabilities – cybercriminals can exploit vulnerabilities in signalling protocols, which are used for communication between different elements in a mobile network. These vulnerabilities can be used to intercept calls and SMS, track user locations, and launch other attacks.
- Spoofing and impersonation – criminals can impersonate legitimate network elements, such as HLRs (Home Location Registers) or VLRs (Visitor Location Registers), by sending fake signalling messages. This can lead to unauthorised access and fraud.
- Subscriber Information Disclosure – these cyberattacks can exploit signalling vulnerabilities to access subscriber information, including call records, text messages, and other sensitive data.
- Fraudulent activity – signalling threats can be used to engage in fraudulent activities, such as SIM card cloning or premium rate service fraud, leading to financial losses for both MNOs and their customers.
Mitigation Strategies for Data Risks and Threats
From the above, it is clear that MNOs must manage several data risks and threats. The question that needs to be asked is, “How are MNOs mitigating these risks?” The answer lies in the implementation and deployment of multi-pronged mitigation strategies. MNOs should tailor their data risk mitigation strategies to their specific operations, the types of data they handle, and the regulatory environment in which they operate. These strategies include:
Risk Assessment and Management:
- This involves regularly conducting risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities and threats. In this way, MNOs can prioritise risks based on their potential impact and likelihood.
Access Control, Authentication and Authorisation:
- Implement strict access controls to limit access to sensitive systems and data to authorised personnel only, like multi-factor authentication (MFA) for privileged accounts.
- Implement strong authentication methods such as two-factor authentication (2FA) to verify the identity of users.
- Continuously monitor and manage user access permissions to ensure that users only have access to data they need for their roles.
- Segment networks to isolate critical components from less critical ones. This can limit the impact of a breach.
Regular Patch Management:
- Stay updated with security patches and updates for all software and hardware components.
- Implement a patch management process to ensure the timely application of patches.
Intrusion Detection and Prevention:
- Deploy intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS) to detect and respond to suspicious activities in real-time.
- Encrypt sensitive data both in transit and at rest.
- Use strong encryption algorithms and regularly update encryption keys.
Data Loss Prevention (DLP):
- Deploy Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions to monitor and prevent the unauthorised transfer or sharing of sensitive data.
- Create policies that automatically block or alert suspicious data transfers.
Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing:
- Conduct regular vulnerability assessments and penetration testing to identify and address weaknesses in systems and applications.
Security Awareness Training:
- Train employees and contractors in security best practices.
- Conduct simulated phishing exercises to educate staff about the dangers of social engineering.
Incident Response Plan:
- Develop and regularly update an incident response plan that outlines how to react to security incidents.
- Establish a dedicated incident response team.
- Implement continuous security monitoring to detect and respond to threats as they occur.
Supplier and Third-Party Risk Management:
- Assess the security practices of third-party vendors and suppliers.
- Ensure that they adhere to security standards and protocols.
From the above, it is vital for MNOs to have data risk and threat mitigation strategies in place. These strategies ensure that all data coming through the network is safe and secure. By managing this effectively, MNOs can ensure there are no financial losses, that customer trust and business reputation are not damaged, and that the network is protected. MNOs also need to ensure that the software solutions being utilised have the proper security measures in place to prevent these kinds of cyber-attacks, data breaches and other threats. Adapt IT Telecoms software solutions tick all of the boxes regarding data security and privacy, and each of our solutions has been built with these mitigation strategies in place. With Adapt IT Telecoms, you can rest assured that your network and subscriber data is safe and secure.
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Experienced Software System Engineer with a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry. Skilled in Technical Solution Design, Management and Large Scale System Integration and Architecture. Strong engineering professional with an Engineer’s Degree focused in Computer Engineering from University of Pretoria/Universiteit van Pretoria.