PARTNER FEATURE: Mobile network operators (MNOs) the world over are in the process of enabling the full potential of 5G. This might come as a surprise to consumers with 5G handsets, which have been available as far back as 2019, but while most 5G phones connect to 5G base stations whenever possible, the data is transmitted over 4G core networks.

In the past, radio and core network specifications were developed in parallel and they were implemented together. That has not been the case with 5G, where cellular standards organisations 3GPP and ETSI provided a number of migration options to operators of previous network generations to facilitate the early adoption of 5G and capitalise on its potential opportunities. These migration options have created a hybrid ecosystem of 4G and 5G technologies.

Realistically, the services people are accessing with 5G phones today are the same as 4G phone users, with the exception of a faster radio interface. The release of the latest standards from 3GPP for 5G Advanced means all this is about to change as MNOs bring 5G core networks online.

Overall this is obviously a positive development, as it will usher in an era of new communication capabilities characterised by very high-speed, low-latency, and edge-based networks. This will doubtless ignite a rapid expansion in various fields such as streaming media, online gaming, immersive virtual and augmented reality, Internet of Things devices, and more. Consumers, businesses, economies and societies will benefit from this exciting new era of mobile services and MNOs will start to recoup the investment that they have made in 5G.

A hidden challenge for MNOs and LEAs
However, enabling a 5G core also means law enforcement and government intelligence agencies (LEAs) need to reevaluate their lawful intelligence platforms to ensure they can handle the speed and, in some cases, encryption of 5G traffic. Until recently, lawful intercept technologies that worked on 4G networks also worked for 5G phones, since the core of the network was still using the 4G elements. But as 5G core becomes the norm, they will simply stop working.

Worryingly for MNOs, this could invalidate their licenses and/or result in hefty fines. For LEAs, it will mean they can no longer track criminal activity, and they will miss out on the advantages that come with 5G – such as the more accurate location associated with the increased number of base stations required for 5G. This is particularly relevant in large cities where the population lives and works in high rise buildings because previous network generations located only across the X and Y axes, while 5G adds the Z axis to location.

The next generation of services will also breed a new generation of threats. We have already seen criminals communicating via messaging platforms used by online gamers. In the near future we could see criminal gangs coordinating activities in the metaverse, or using drones and/or other autonomous vehicles to ship illicit goods without the need for human intervention. Whether those goods are weapons, drugs or stolen property, combatting 5G-enabled digitally-transformed criminal enterprises will represent a huge challenge for LEAs – especially those that are unable to lawfully intercept 5G communications.

In addition to 4G network-based lawful intercept technologies becoming obsolete in the 5G era, LEAs will also discover that cell site simulators (AKA IMSI-catchers) will also stop working. Cell site simulators are essentially fake base stations that can be used temporarily to capture handsets’ identities and they play a vital role in law enforcement. As the 5G control channel is encrypted between the handset and the network, the current raft of cell site simulators will be unable to identify subscribers.

This development has the potential to have a knock on effect on network quality as operators of cell site simulators attempt to circumvent the encryption issue by forcing handsets down to LTE in order to capture data.

MNOs and LEAs must come together on 5G
A large part of the problem is a lack of awareness among the LEA community. Previous network upgrades were not as impactful, the data volume increase was not as large and of course there was no encryption of the control channel to consider. Most LEAs are likely to be operating under the misapprehension that the technology they have in place today will continue to work – most are unaware that 5G radio networks have been transporting data over 4G cores.

Given the potential impact on lawful intercept and operator licenses, the MNOs need to collaborate closely with LEAs to ensure that they’re not only aware of the issue, but also aware of how they need to work together to ensure they are adhering to whatever regulations are in place in their market.

The good news is the 5G-ready technology from SS8 is available. The Xcipio 5G lawful intercept solutions extract data from any network to hand off high-quality, real-time intelligence to LEAs.

LocationWise from SS8 provides an accurate, precise, and fast positioning solution. It combines network and device data, including Z-axis location, for the best results, and helps solve crimes and respond to public emergencies, even in urban settings or underground structures.

SS8’s 5G-ready Intellego XT, which includes MetaHub, gives investigators the powerful analytics, precise location, and user-friendly visualisations that yield new insights into crimes and emergency situations.

Finally, MetaHub includes an enhanced version of SS8’s Protocol eXtraction Engine (ePXE), SS8’s response to the growing use of encrypted OTT apps like WhatsApp by targets of interest. By capturing and analysing the metadata created by these communications, investigators gain critical context around the encrypted communications of such messages.

SS8 is dedicated to enhancing lawful interception platforms to promote the full potential of 5G networks while ensuring compatibility with previous network generations and safeguarding individual privacy as well as public safety.

For a deeper dive on New Lawful Interception Standards for 5G download the whitepaper on 5G Compliant and Lawful Mediation.