Reader Forum: Operators must think security first to prevent catastrophic network breaches

Telecom networks operate in two different planes: the user plane and the control plane. The user plane – also known as the “bearer” plane – is where all user data (voice, data, video) is carried. The networks manage user sessions and authenticate devices and subscribers using the control plane. The control plane is also interconnected with other networks to support roaming when we travel.

Networks once used dedicated circuits to connect to other networks (such as T1/E1 circuits). These dedicated circuits carried a level of inherent security because they were assigned to a physical building address and could not be easily moved around. As the address of the termination point for the circuit was well recorded, it was extremely difficult for abusers to hide. This method of interconnection between networks prevented unauthorized access into both wireless and fixed line networks.

Around 2000, however, we began migrating our networks to an all-IP infrastructure. This had a profound effect not only on the transport network, but on interconnections as well. IP circuits can be accessed from anywhere, exposing the network to new threats. Still, there was a certain level of skill and expertise required to connect to a telecom network and use it for any nefarious activity. Only telephone companies and their engineers possessed this expertise. Specifications for these networks and their underlying protocols cost thousands of dollars, providing yet another barrier to would-be hackers.

Eventually, knowledge about these networks and the technology used in these networks became widespread, including through university curriculum for engineers. Specifications and standards are now free to anyone through the internet. These specifications have become available to everyone and what was once proprietary knowledge has become public knowledge.

Researchers have demonstrated that anyone with a laptop can access a communications network and attack subscriber sessions. They can steal…

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