5G Deployments, Wireless Hotspots Are Likely Culprits for Increased Attacks

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Wireless operators continued to ramp up 5G deployments in 2021. 5G networks not only expanded to include 13 additional countries during that time, but the overall number of connections doubled from 2020 to reach more than 540 million people by the close of 2021.

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Likewise, the number of gamers grew to more than 2.8 billion during 2021. And the expectation is that number will continue increasing at a steady pace through at least 2023, topping out at more than 3 billion gamers during that period. Not surprisingly, wireless hotspot usage continues to grow unabatedly. 

Some of the most prevalent users of wireless hotspots are gamers, driven by their need for a dependable internet connection as well as by their desire to play any time, from any location. Irrespective of gamers, however, wireless hotspot use continues to grow. 

Hotspot use skyrocketed in 2020, as pandemic restrictions forced people to work and attend school from home. As pandemic restrictions ease, however, mobile hotspot usage won’t decrease, given hotspot’s popularity with international and domestic travelers, users in areas without ample Wi-Fi coverage, and people who continue to work remotely.

Without question, wireless operators are rejoicing over continued development of 5G networks and increased usage of hotspots. 5G deployments will help operators reverse declining revenues by supporting new, innovative services to compete against over-the-top (OTT) competitors. Likewise, increases in the use of wireless hotspots enables operators to add more revenue to their hard-hit bottom lines.

Unfortunately, however, threat actors have recognized that 5G and gaming hotspots create ample opportunity for attacks against wireless operators. Although the number of attacks against many of the subsets of telecommunications decreased in 2H 2021, attacks against wireless operators increased 38 percent over 1H 2021.

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One of the most notable attacks during this timeframe was launched against T-Mobile in August 2021. Threat actors gained access to Social Security numbers, names, addresses, birthdates, and driver’s license information for more than 54 million people in the carrier’s database—including former, current, and prospective customers.

In September, the person claiming to be responsible for the attack spoke with the Wall Street Journal, revealing that the attack was made possible because T-Mobile had unprotected routers and weak spots in internet addresses that provided him access to more than 100 servers.

Wireless operators aren’t the only telecommunications vertical receiving increased and unwanted attention from threat actors. In 2H 2021, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) experienced a 93 percent increase in attacks compared with the first half of the year, with one VoIP provider revealing a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) extortion attack that resulted in losses of between $9 and $12 million. 

Read the 2H 2021 Threat Intelligence Report for more details about attacks against telecommunications providers, as well as why and how attackers are changing targets and strategies.