Enea SVP on how cybercriminals exploit mobile communication

SVP and Head of Enea AdaptiveMobile Security John Hughes sits down to discuss threats posed to infrastructure and how best to mitigate risk

With a telecom background spanning more than a quarter of a century, John Hughes has a wealth of experience in the vendor side of the sector, particularly in telecom security.

Part of the executive management team at Enea and SVP and head of the AdaptiveMobile Security business unit, he boasts almost 20 years at AdaptiveMobile, which was acquired by Enea in 2021. The leading telecom and cybersecurity software company has its software in use at around 200 fixed and mobile operators and service providers worldwide.

With a personal and company goal of making the world’s communications safer and more efficient, Hughes sits down with Cyber Magazine to discuss threats to the mobile industry, what that means for businesses and operators, and how to best protect from unwanted interference.

In what ways have hackers and other criminals exploited mobile communication infrastructure? What has the impact been?

The exploitation of mobile communication infrastructure by malicious actors is a multifaceted issue. These actors, which range from individual hackers to private companies and even nation-states, have found ways to weaponize mobile operators and their networks. They've developed techniques to pinpoint the location of mobile phones of high-profile individuals, intercept messages, and exfiltrate data without detection. In some cases, they've turned global mobile networks into tools for nefarious activities.

The repercussions of these exploitations are vast and varied. On a business level, the financial, brand, and trust implications can be crippling. We've witnessed businesses facing severe financial setbacks, and in some extreme cases, companies have even been forced to shut down due to the aftermath of these breaches. On a more personal level, the impact on individuals can be socially and financially devastating. A particularly alarming revelation was highlighted in a media report by Der Spiegel, which showcased that these vulnerabilities have had consequences as severe as the targeted murders of journalists in Mexico. While this represents an extreme case, it underscores the profound and far-reaching implications of these security breaches.

Can you see this being a growing problem?

Absolutely. The landscape of mobile cybersecurity has undergone a significant transformation since I first entered the industry. A decade ago, the general perception of mobile cybersecurity was vastly different. It wasn't viewed as a pressing concern, and many didn't see it as a problem at all. Fast forward to today, and the narrative has shifted dramatically. Cybersecurity, especially in the mobile domain, is a topic of discussion and concern for everyone, from taxi drivers to CEOs.

The increasing reliance on mobile communications, coupled with the proliferation of smart devices, has made the mobile infrastructure a lucrative target for bad actors. As technology evolves, so do the methods and techniques employed by these malicious entities. The awareness and understanding of the importance of security have grown, but so has the sophistication and boldness of the threats. Conversations with everyday individuals often reveal stories of someone they know or a business that has been impacted by a security breach. The fact that it's become a common topic of discussion among the general public is a testament to its growing significance.

In essence, as our dependence on mobile communications continues to grow, so will the challenges and threats associated with ensuring its security. It's a problem that's only set to escalate, making the role of cybersecurity solutions even more crucial in the coming years.

What damage does this threat pose to businesses and countries using their services?

The threats posed by the exploitation of mobile communication infrastructure cast a wide net of consequences that touch every facet of our digital world. Businesses, at the forefront, grapple with substantial financial losses, whether from direct theft, ransom demands, or the cascading costs of bolstering security and navigating legal ramifications post-breach. But it's not just about the money. The very essence of a brand, its reputation, can be irreparably tarnished, leading to a long road of rebuilding customer trust.

Operational disruptions are another concern. A cyberattack can halt the regular rhythm of a business, causing downtime and potentially resulting in the loss of critical data. And it's not just businesses that are at risk. Malicious actors, with their ever-evolving tactics, have shown the capability to pinpoint and target high-profile individuals, leading to threats that can range from personal blackmail to physical harm.

Data breaches, a term now all too familiar, can have ramifications that ripple outwards. When sensitive data, be it related to national security, intellectual property, or the personal information of millions, is exposed, the implications are vast. Entire nations can feel the sting if their primary service providers are compromised, potentially disrupting everything from daily communications to emergency services.

On the geopolitical stage, the stakes are even higher. Mobile networks, once just tools of communication, are now potential weapons in the hands of nation-states, leading to cyber espionage and a new frontier of cyber warfare. And at the heart of it all is the individual. From identity theft and financial fraud to the very real violation of personal privacy, the societal impact is profound. In the most extreme cases, as we've seen, these vulnerabilities can even be the catalyst for targeted attacks on individuals, with life-altering or even fatal consequences.

In essence, the threats to our mobile communication infrastructure are a tapestry of interconnected concerns, each thread weaving into the next, creating a complex challenge that spans industries, borders, and individual lives.

What can be done to mitigate this risk?

Mitigating the risks associated with mobile communication infrastructure demands a multi-pronged approach. At the very foundation, mobile phone users, which now encompass nearly everyone, should expect their service providers to have robust firewalls in place, specifically tailored for both signaling and messaging security. But it doesn't stop at just having these firewalls; they need to be continuously updated, reflecting the ever-evolving threat landscape. This means having around-the-clock threat intelligence and response mechanisms in place to swiftly counteract any emerging threats.

Service providers that are genuinely committed to security will go beyond these foundational measures. They will implement sophisticated routines and offer cybersecurity services that are tailored to the unique needs of their business and enterprise customers. Particularly, for businesses that rely heavily on SMS for two-factor authentication or handle sensitive data, there's an expectation that their service provider offers a fortified network infrastructure. This ensures they can conduct their business with confidence, knowing they're operating on a secure platform.

In essence, the key to risk mitigation lies in proactive measures, continuous vigilance, and a commitment to staying ahead of potential threats. It's about fostering a culture of security where protection isn't just a one-time effort but an ongoing commitment.

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