5G is the latest in a series of evolutions in public mobile networking, with widespread coverage and access on a subscription basis. 5G networks are characterized by improved capabilities across a variety of measures, including throughputs, latencies, numbers of devices, and battery life. 5G is used to attach small special purpose devices comprising the Internet of Things (IoT) to the Internet, and the important and growing number of services provided by the World Wide Web. IoT devices are often sensors, and 5G access to their data is envisioned to play important roles in medicine, manufacturing, and smart cities.
Standards processes are used to maintain interoperability required for a public network, and while many of the components and component behaviors of 5G have changed little from predecessors, such as 4G and LTE, the standards for the most futuristic 5G features are those most in flux. These futuristic features, ranging from network slicing to support for programmable networks, also present the greatest risk to U.S. national security, as networks are simultaneously critical infrastructure and the means used for cyberespionage and cyberwarfare.
DARPA’s Open, Programmable, Secure 5G (OPS-5G) aims to address this risk by pursuing research leading to the development of a portable standards-compliant network stack for 5G mobile that is open source and secure by design. OPS-5G seeks to create open source software and systems that enable secure 5G and subsequent mobile networks such as 6G. The signature security advantage of open source software is increased code visibility, meaning that code can be examined, analyzed, and audited, either manually or with automated tools. In addition, the portability of open source serves, as a desired side-effect, to decouple the hardware and software ecosystems. This significantly raises the difficulty of a supply-chain attack and eases the introduction of innovative hardware into the market. The program seeks to enable a “plug-and-play” approach to various software components which reduces reliance on untrusted technology sources.
Programmable networks bring new flexibility to 5G, but also introduce novel security challenges. To achieve 5G’s potential benefits, programmability must be implemented and managed carefully. Such benefits include bespoke networks that are tuned to application needs, as well as increased network adaptation capabilities. Programmability must also be developed in ways that avoid rampant opportunities for misuse. Ideally, the introduction of programmability for 5G will incorporate lessons learned from the well-intentioned introduction of programmability into web browsers, a capability that quickly became weaponized by malicious actors. OPS-5G aims to improve overall 5G security by increasing trust at a set of soft points that include unmanaged, unattended, long-lived, and possibly long-forgotten IoT devices. Additionally, OPS-5G aims to address unintended and unwanted interactions between network slices and threats from the vast increases in network scale.
More information is available in the OPS-5G BAA.
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