Arbor: Mobile networks trail fixed line in security

Mobile network operators have tended to focus on growing revenue rather than securing their infrastructure

Mobile network operators are trailing their fixed-line counterparts by several years in regards to security, with many experiencing outages and other problems due to the use of outdated security technology, according to a new report released Tuesday by Arbor Networks.

As demand for mobile Internet access has grown, mobile operators have focused on growing revenue rather than securing their infrastructure, said Paul Scanlon, a solutions architect for Arbor. Mobile operators are eight to 10 years behind their fixed-line counterparts when it comes to security, he said.

"They're just not keeping pace with state-of-the-art security solutions," Scanlon said.

Arbor surveyed 111 network operators for its Worldwide Infrastructure Security Report, which covers a period from October 2009 to September 2010.

Forty-six percent of respondents said security-related outages on their networks had affected customers.

Among the causes of the outages were denial-of-service attacks, where an attacker prevents legitimate users from accessing a service, either by crashing it or clogging up network access to it.

DOS attacks had been particularly effective against "stateful" devices, such as network address translation (NAT) services, firewalls and intrusion protection systems. Those devices often record all transactions between a client and a server and check those transactions against a policy, Scanlon said. One way to conduct a successful DOS attack is to push those devices to the limit with lots of traffic.

There are better carrier-grade NAT devices on the market, which are typically embedded in a firewall, Scanlon said. Still, there are no devices that can handle a massive influx of traffic, he said.

Another tactic for hackers is to attack DNS (Domain Name System) servers, which translate domain names into IP (Internet Protocol) addresses so that, for example, e-mail can be delivered or Web sites can be displayed in a browser.

DNS servers can be repeatedly queried for domain names that the attacker knows do not exist. "You can affect a large population of folks and their ability to reach websites with one attack on a DNS resolver that asks the ISP's server for information it doesn't know," Scanlon said.

Mobile operators also have poor visibility on what is exactly going on their network, Scanlon said.

"In terms of visibility into the network traffic of their wireless packet cores and their ability to classify core traffic as potentially harmful, 59 percent of respondents indicated they have limited or no visibility whatsoever," according to the report. "Only 23 percent indicated they have visibility into their wireless packet cores on par with or better than their visibility into their wireline packet cores."

Many carriers can't do operating system fingerprinting, which would indicate whether for example an Android device or an iPhone or a laptop with a 3G card is connecting to their network.

"Other than usage and volume of traffic, it's hard to track how many machines are behind the card," Scanlon said.

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