The pandemic has been beneficial for the telco world in one way. For those who weren’t previously aware already, telecommunications is incredibly important to our modern way of life. Not just our ability to communicate with others, but our economy, the services we use, the products we buy and even more fundamentally, our safety.
Working in the telco industry, as I’m sure you do, you’ll also be well aware of all the rhetoric and politics around Chinese manufactured equipment (eg Huawei) being used in the networks of global telco providers. The theory is that having telecommunications infrastructure supplied by a third-party, particularly a third-party aligned with non-Western allies, puts national security interests at risk.
In this article, “5G: The outsourced elephant in the room,” Bert Hubert provides a brilliant look into the realities of telco network security that go far beyond just equipment supply. It breaks the national security threat into three key elements:
- Spying (using compromised telco infrastructure to conduct espionage)
- Availability (compromising and/or manipulating telco infrastructure so that it’s unable to work reliably)
- Autonomy (being unable to operate a network or to recover from outages or compromises)
The first two are well understood and often discussed. The third is the real elephant in the room. The elephant OSS/BSS have a huge influence over (potentially). But we’ll get to that shortly.
Before we do, let’s summarise Bert’s analysis of security models. For 5G, he states that there’s an assumption that employees at national carriers design networks, buy equipment, install it, commission it and then hand it over to other employees to monitor and manage it. Oh, and to provide other specialised activities like lawful intercept, where a local legal system provides warrants to monitor the digital communications of (potentially) nefarious actors. Government bodies and taxpayers all assume the telcos have experienced staff with the expertise to provide all these services.
However, the reality is far different. Service providers have been outsourcing many of these functions for decades. New equipment is designed, deployed, configured, maintained and sometimes even financed by vendors for many global telcos. As Bert reinforces, “Just to let that sink in, Huawei (and their close partners) already run and directly operate the mobile telecommunication infrastructure for over 100 million European subscribers.“
But let’s be very clear here. It’s not just Huawei and it’s not just Chinese manufacturers. Nor is it just mobile infrastructure. It’s also cloud providers and fixed-line networks. It’s also American manufacturers. It’s also the integrators that pull these networks and systems together.
Bert also points out that CDRs (Call Detail Records) have been outsourced for decades. There’s a strong trend for billing providers to supply their tools via SaaS delivery models. And what are CDRs? Only metadata. Metadata that describes a subscriber’s activities and whereabouts. Data that’s powerful enough to be used to assist with criminal investigations (via lawful intercept). But where has CDR / bill processing been outsourced to? China and Israel mostly.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the autonomy factor, the real elephant in the room. Many design and operations activities have been offshored to jurisdictions where staff are more affordable. The telcos usually put clean-room facilities in place to ensure a level of security is applied to any data handled off-shore. They also put in place contractual protection mechanisms.
Those are moot points, but still not the key point here. As Bert brilliantly summarises, “any worries about [offshore actors] being able to disrupt our communications through backdoors ignore the fact that all they’d need to do to disrupt our communications.. is to stop maintaining our networks for us!“
There might be an implicit trust in “Western” manufacturers or integrators (eg Ericsson, Nokia, IBM) in designing, building and maintaining networks. However, these organisation also outsource / insource labour to international destinations where labour costs are cheaper.
If the R&D, design, configuration and operations roles are all outsourced, where do the telcos find the local resources with requisite skills to keep the network up in times when force majeure (eg war, epidemic, crime, strikes, etc) interrupts a remote workforce? How do local resources develop the required skills if the roles don’t exist locally?
Bert proposes that automation is an important part of the solution. He has a point. Many of the outsource arrangements are time and materials based contracts, so it’s in the resource suppliers’ best interests for activities to take a lot of time to maintain manually. He counters by showing how the hyperscalers (eg Google) have found ways of building automations so that their networks and infrastructure need minimal support crews.
Their support systems, unlike the legacy thinking of telco systems, have been designed with zero-touch / low-touch in mind.
If we do care about the stability, resiliency and privacy of our national networks, then something has to be done differently, vastly different! Having highly autonomous networks, OSS, BSS and related systems is a start. Having a highly skilled pool of local resources that can research, design, build, commission, operate and improve these systems would also seem important. If the business models of these telcos can’t support the higher costs of these local resources, then perhaps national security interests might have to subsidise these skills?
I wonder if the national carriers and/or local OSS/BSS / Automation suppliers are lobbying this point? I know a few governments have inserted security regulatory systems and pushed them onto the telcos to adhere to, to ensure they have suitable cyber-security mechanisms. They also have lawful intercept provisions. But do any have local operational autonomy provisions? None that I’m aware of, but feel free to leave us a comment about any you’re aware of.
PS. Hat tip to Jay for the link to Bert’s post.