What Is 5G SIM and Why Is It Important?
Posted by Greg Knell on 28th Jun 2022
You already know what a SIM card is. The smartphone you currently own has a removable one inside. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to make calls on your provider’s network (among other things). But SIMs are responsible for much more than that, and they come in various forms - cards being one of them. Let’s talk about 5G SIM. What 5G networks rely on them for, what their relationship with 5G operators is like, and more. Time to get into the weeds of 5G SIM.
What is 5G SIM?
It’s a secure, tamper-proof element that secures 5G network access. As technological advancements stand today, it’s the only solution capable of accomplishing this task. In card form (otherwise known as a UICC (Universal Integrated Circuit Card)), the 5G SIM card has been given the specification ETSI-3GPP. This “name” is what’s referred to as its 5G standardization.
So, when we say that the purpose of 5G SIM is to secure 5G network access, what does that actually mean? Well, the security of the network relies on the safety of three primary attributes of 5G: massive IoT, enhance mobile broadband, and critical communications. The SIM is responsible for the protection of all three.
Speaking of the number three, there are three form factors for SIM technology: 5G eSIM, IoT SIM, and removable SIM. 5G SIM encompasses all three. All of these SIM iterations together make up what companies like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Vodafone Germany, and many other mobile operators are working to accomplish. Stand-alone 5G networks (referred to as 5GC) are being deployed all over the world. When 2022 began, over half of all mobile operators worldwide launched 5GC networks. And 5G SIM technology is integral to all of them.
5G Operator Challenges
In this section, we need to explain a few important things that may seem off topic, but stay with us. It’s relevant to understanding the importance of 5G SIM.
In order for 5G to reach its potential, it has to overcome a certain number of security issues and legal concerns; three in particular. We’ll explain each one below.
User Privacy Management
In our digitalized society, few things are as important as user privacy management. If users can’t trust mobile operators to keep their personal information safe and secure, their partnership suffers, followed by the operator’s reputation. No trust means no relationship. When you hear about someone’s phone being hacked, this almost always means that a person was able to gain access to a user’s IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity). Every mobile phone user in the world has one (or at least they’re supposed to). For instance, you’re mobile subscriber identity includes information like the mobile network you use as well as all the personal information you gave to that provider when you signed up with them. Expert hackers have developed what insiders call IMSI “catcher equipment”(aka Stingray) which they use to locate a person, trace them, and collect their data.
How Do Stingrays Work?
Specifically, these Stingrays are used to track all mobile phones switched on and connected to a particular network in a certain area. They act as a false base station (in other words, a pretend cell tower). When successful, this intrusive technology tricks your phone into thinking it’s connected to its normal cell tower, and thereby revealing all of your personal information.
In order prevent this, your subscriber identity must be fully anonymitized, end-to-end (by end-to-end, we mean from core network to mobile device). All this being said, there certainly are regulations already imposed on mobile operators (ePR, ePrivacy Regulation, GDPR) designed to protect privacy and secure networks. Some mobile operators even have their own security strategies and policies that they implement. Take the ePR in the UK, for instance. Its purpose is to maintain "a high level of protection of the right to the confidentiality of communications and individual privacy, and the creation of a level playing field between digital services relying on data in the EU." Source.
Network Authentication Elements
In order to authenticate multiple users onto their networks (and by multiple we mean millions) and keep everyone’s information safe, operators weave secret-key credentials and complex algorithms into their mobile security architecture. Unfortunately, despite these security measures, some of the information that make up these algorithms has been exposed before. In some cases, it’s happened during expert hacking attacks and even during accidental breaches. When this happens, networks are left vulnerable, leaving a window open for SIM cloning, communication spying, and other nefarious acts.
In the situations where this has happed to a mobile network, and the carrier suspects or knows that sensitive user data has been compromised, their hand is forced. They have to change their network authentication algorithm. Either that, or ask their users to change their SIM cards, which is unlikely, given the scope of such an undertaking. If it’s just one or a small number of identify theft victims, it could be (and has been) done. We’ve heard of situations where the carrier required the user to pay the SIM card renewal costs.
All of this obviously hurts the user experience. It damages trust, not to mention it does a number on the operator’s reputation. Operators have to do everything they can to earn and keep the trust of their users. One of the main ways they do this is creating a cyber-resilient environment over the entire SIM lifecycle.
Of course, users like you are an intended beneficiary of 5G. But don’t be offended to learn that enterprises are actually meant to be the main beneficiary. 5G capabilities such as network slicing and virtualization will be leveraged and customized to provide enterprises with tailored connectivity. But, just like the user security concerns mentioned above, the data integrity of enterprises is also perpetually at threat. They require similar security measures.
Though not a security or legal concern, we need to mention 5G roaming before moving on. Naturally, when you travel outside your home country and you use a 5G-enabled phone, you expect certain things. You expect that your device will simply switch 5G networks and continue to roam. This is what we expect from our 4G LTE devices. So, of course, we expect that from new mobile technology, as well.
As 5G stands today, it’s still likely that while traveling internationally, your phone jumps to a 4G network. Or in some areas of the world, even a 3G network, depending on where you are. When that happens, you would be disconnected from the enhanced mobile experience that 5G brings.
The goal of worldwide 5G rollout is that a roaming policy be applied in any country and across 5G, 4G, and 3G networks. Mobile operators want to ensure roaming policies like this.
Now, let’s talk about the benefits of 5G SIM and how it resolves the security issues, legal concerns, and roaming issues described above.
The Benefits of 5G SIM
5G SIM can address the challenges mentioned in the previous section. Let’s take a look at the solutions 5G SIM technology provides by breaking them down into four parts. Subscriber identity privacy, cyber resilience, private networks confidentiality and tailored enterprise, and smooth 5G roaming.
Subscriber Identity Privacy
IMSI encryption is made possible by 5G SIM technology. It’s capable of this highly secure anonymization in large part because the tech is onboarded; it’s built into the 5G SIM. Not every 5G SIM made by every manufacturer includes this onboarded technology, but many - if not most - do.
Because of a feature called key rotation management, 5G SIM gives mobile operators the ability to swap the authentication algorithm inside the SIM. It’s an incredibly secure action and can be done on demand, essentially whenever they want, and they can do it remotely if they wish.
Private Networks Confidentiality & Tailored Enterprise
For each network slice, mobile operators can utilize 5G SIM’s network authentication mechanisms to provide authorization, authentication, and customized security. This means more confidentiality and higher integrity for private networks and enterprise 5G services.
Smooth 5G Roaming
With 5G SIM technology, mobile operators have the ability to steer 5G roaming capabilities over-the-air. This ensures an optimal, smooth 5G roaming experience for end users, not to mention the roaming revenues are maximized as a result.
What Is a 5G SIM and Why Are They Important? - Conclusion
Remember that by 2024, 5G is expected to reach close to 2 billion subscriptions, despite its commercial launch taking place only 3 years ago, in 2019. Compared to past mobile technology generations (2G, 3G, 4G), 5G is coming to fruition the fastest, by far.
5G SIM is an integral component of 5G technology and plays a large role in how quickly and efficiently mobile operators have been able to roll out 5G networks. As more 5G infrastructures are created, the influence of 5G SIM will continue to increase.