Specialised networks to provide information security
The biggest issue facing the internet is poor information security. At any time, there are millions of internet-connected devices that hackers have hijacked.
‘The problem with the internet is its basic technology, i.e., a routable IP network, which allows the sending device’s address to be spoofed or even the entire route to be hijacked,’ says Raimo Kantola, Professor of Networking Technology.
When a hacker gains control of a target device, it can send information to any other device on the internet. A spoofed address can cause significant damage before it becomes clear to the recipient that the sender is someone other than the party it appears to be.
‘It’s unfortunate that the internet is designed in such a way. Even those who created the Internet Protocol say that the early internet was an experiment that escaped from a laboratory. Now, as the basic infrastructure of society, the internet is completely inadequate in terms of information security.’
Over the last twenty years, internet security has been improved with a haphazard approach by ‘putting patch upon patch’. Current information security measures consist of antivirus programs, firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention, etc.
‘When these security measures are consistently used, the internet works well, but there are still security leaks and Denial of Service attacks from time to time.’
The technology already exists
The level of information security must be raised, especially for networks that handle information critical to safety or society’s functioning or that is otherwise confidential. Kantola offers specialised networks that would have mobile access as a possible solution.
‘Unlike the internet, mobile networks require reliable device and user identification. They provide a good starting point for information security.’
The servers connected to a specialised network, built as an extension of a mobile network and in parallel to the internet, could not be attacked from possibly vulnerable devices on the internet. Access to the servers would only be from devices with reliable authentication, such as smartphones or laptops with a SIM card.
There is a need for the kind of isolation provided by specialised networks in the health sector and the banking world. All transactions of Kela, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, could be made securely via specialised networks.
‘A specialised network with a mobile access could allow a customer to access their health and banking information securely, even if a denial of service attack would block access to the same services on the Internet.’
Companies have long used virtual private networks (VPN) that connect different offices. With VPN technology, remote workers can also access a company's closed networks. The specialised network, as proposed here, would be a generalisation of the VPN, such that it would be provided by several operators that would be selling subscriptions to institutions and providing access to mobile users who are also, e.g. bank customers or regular citizens.
Developments have brought programmable network routers and switches to the market. Hence, the construction of secure specialised networks is no longer hindered by a lack of technology, even if we wish to replace the IP protocol itself with something else. Still, the networks are not yet in commercial use in Finland.
‘Everything ultimately depends on business decisions. For example, the banking and finance sector must be willing to build their own specialised network. And all mobile operators preferably must also be involved.’
Security risks increase with 5G
Raimo Kantola also calls for improved skills for those responsible for information networks.
‘When I do renovations at home, I must call in a professional who is formally certified to do waterproofing or electrical work. But corporate computer networks can be built by self-taught amateurs.’
Security risks increase as the Internet of Things (IoT), built on the 5G network, creates new digital services. For example, road traffic control or automated driving is likely to become dependent on them in the future.
‘IoT creates an interface between the physical and digital worlds, for example, to allow the control of industrial processes or means of transport. Which can be problematic as it may allow hackers to commit crimes in the physical world using information networks.’
If, for example, a hacker takes control of a car, the consequences could be severe.
‘A new direction is needed to improve the current level of security. Communications critical to safety or society’s functioning should be shifted from the traditional internet to specialised networks.’
Text: Marjukka Puolakka
Illustration: Noora Typpö
This article will be published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 28, May 2021.