Cybersecurity Risks of Network Slicing for IoT

Zac Amos
Cybersecurity Risks of Network Slicing for IoT

Many telecommunication companies are leveraging network slicing for the Internet of Things (IoT) because it offers numerous benefits. Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to its deployment — it creates new security risks they may not be prepared for. What cyber threats does it introduce and how can they protect themselves?

What Is Network Slicing?

Network slicing technology divides one physical network into multiple virtual networks. These slices are separate from one another. Even though they share the same central infrastructure — and many use the same resources — each one acts independently.

In the context of IoT, network slicing isolates various groups of connected devices onto different slices depending on what they’re being used for. For example, smart security systems, self-driving cars, and smart lights would be separate.

How Network Slicing Benefits IoT

Network slicing benefits connected devices in numerous ways, but the most significant involves optimization. While one slice focuses on low latency, another can prioritize high density. This way, IoT ecosystems consistently achieve optimal resource utilization. 

Out-of-the-box solutions won’t benefit most IoT devices because they’re so varied — the needs of a smart thermostat are much different than that of a construction equipment sensor. The ability to design custom controls is essential for achieving optimal performance.

Tailoring each slice to a specific need can lead to significant cost savings. Connected devices use less bandwidth and save more power when they utilize resources optimally, minimizing operating expenses.

Another substantial benefit of network slicing for IoT is scalability. Since it can support many connected devices simultaneously, and telecommunication companies can substantially expand the number they service. This means they can operate multiple large-scale deployments at once.

The Security Risks of Network Slicing for IoT

Although network slicing benefits IoT, it also comes with security risks. Connected devices are already vulnerable — there were 112 million IoT attacks in 2022, an 87 percent year-over-year increase — so these cyber threats pose a significant issue.

Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

Attackers can listen in on the communication between connected devices if unencrypted. In a man-in-the-middle attack, they intercept, tamper, corrupt, or steal data during transmission. It can be difficult to detect because of the scale of operations — manually monitoring multiple slices for covert attacks is challenging.

Configuration Attacks

In a configuration attack, an attacker takes advantage of misconfigured system settings — like weak access controls, default passwords, or open ports — to install malware. This is a common risk of network slicing because IoT ecosystems are vulnerable to misconfigurations.

Data Breaches

IoT devices continuously collect, analyze, and transfer data. Attackers can launch various cyberattacks to access storage systems or listen to device communications, giving them access to whatever information they have. A single data breach cost over $4.45 million in 2023 — a 15.3 percent increase from 2020 — so this poses a real threat to companies. 

Lateral Movement

Attackers often target low-level access points to gain a foothold in a network slice. Once they’ve infiltrated one, they look for other vulnerable devices running on nearby slices — which is easier when several share the same resource. They distribute malware as they move laterally through the network, compromising a large portion of IoT ecosystem.

Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks

In a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, attackers overwhelm a system with network traffic to force it to stop functioning. They often use this downtime as leverage to ask for payments in exchange for restoring service. Slices usually share the same unreplicable resources — like cell towers — so these attacks can have a considerable impact.

How to Solve Network Slicing Security Risks

There are multiple ways to address the cybersecurity risks network slicing poses. 

Telecom Inventory Management

Telecom inventory management involves monitoring physical and virtual assets in a company’s infrastructure. It makes tracking more accurate by combining various data sources and eliminating silos. It enhances visibility when deployed for network slicing security, helping IT teams control devices and spot anomalies.

Zero-Trust Architecture

Zero-trust architecture operates on the principle of not trusting any person or device. It establishes strict access controls, only allowing a select few to view, send, or edit data.

IT teams can leverage tools like multifactor authentication, biometrics, and single sign-on to validate identities and ensure no unauthorized access attempts are successful.

Secure Communication

IT teams should encrypt the information IoT devices collect in transit and at rest. This way, attackers won’t be able to launch successful man-in-the-middle attacks or data breaches. Unreadable things won’t be of any value to them. 

Communication Service Management Function 

Proper management is essential for network slicing security, making communication service management function (CSMF) vital. CSMF sets parameters for each slice — like the number of users allowed — and ensures they’re met. Telecommunication companies should consider it one of the foundational layers for a satisfactory security posture. 

Slice Segmentation

While network slices already act independently, telecommunication companies should take things further by isolating each. This process involves deploying separate physical resources — data storage, management, and security systems — to have as little crossover as possible. This would prevent lateral movement and limit attack severity.

Security Is Essential for Network Slicing Success

While network slicing is cost-effective and efficient, it must be more secure; if attackers can infiltrate multiple slices through one vulnerable device, it defeats the whole purpose of segmentation. Telecommunication companies, IoT manufacturers, and IT teams should work together to ensure this practice remains secure.

Zac Amos
Zac Amos - Features Editor, ReHack
Zac Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he writes about all things tech-related, from cybersecurity to AI to IoT.
Zac Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he writes about all things tech-related, from cybersecurity to AI to IoT.