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Science and Technology

S&T Developing New 5G, Emergency Communications Security Tools

Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have become must-have tools for the federal workforce to accomplish critical missions and everyday business functions—even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. I can attest to the growing importance of mobility, which became integral to my capability to communicate with leadership teams at the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and at Department of Homeland Security headquarters, as well as with our staff as they have teleworked over the past 15 months. 

While technology has made remote work and instant communication a breeze, we also must ensure that they can be accomplished safely. S&T is engaged in two priority research projects whose goal is to make communications technology more secure for federal government and public safety uses. These related projects are coupled under the aptly named Secure and Resilient Mobile Network Infrastructure (SRMNI) and Emergency Communications Research and Development (R&D) Program. 

The combined R&D program and its individual research initiatives are presented in detail in the just-released S&T and CISA SRMNI & Emergency Comms R&D Program Guidebook

Following are quick peeks at each project’s foci, as outlined in the new report:  

SRMNI 

Increased use of mobile devices and the need for new safeguards to protect the federal enterprise networks that enable mobility make it essential to develop solutions that will enhance the security framework of 5G cellular technologies so they can be safely used by federal government agencies and their employees. That’s the goal of SRMNI.

5G is touted as the unifying connectivity fabric that will link virtually everything and expand mobile communications to encompass new services, applications and deployments. New 5G technologies include techniques to solve 4G security weaknesses and also implement new measures to meet the security requirements required for the new 5G use-cases: enhanced mobile broadband and massive machine type communications to support internet of things machine-to-machine communications and critical communications with ultra-reliability and low latency. However, one of the lessons learned from deployment of 4G and earlier networks is that all cellular technologies have inherent security challenges; 5G is no exception.

SRMNI is addressing gaps in mobile ecosystem security and resiliency identified by our operational partners at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). With its emphasis on security risk management, the SRMNI program is supporting CISA’s 5G mission, mobile security and emergency communications security and resilience, as well as its 5G Strategy & Implementation Plan, which is aligned to the National Strategy to Secure 5G. 

More specifically, the project is researching legacy and current telecommunications protocols and protections and enabling security into 5G networks, and leveraging 5G to demonstrate solutions that meet other government security needs, including a secure voice and video capability for unclassified government communications and a protective Domain Name System for mobile network traffic.

Emergency Communications R&D Project 

On a parallel track, S&T also is engaged in emergency communications-focused R&D efforts that support CISA’s activities to advance development of secure and interoperable emergency communications for first responders. 

This project area is spearheading R&D to address three priority issues challenging the nation’s public-safety community: enhancing cybersecurity protections for Emergency Communications Centers; creating more effective and trusted Federated Identity, Credential, and Access Management capabilities for public-safety use; and developing interoperability standards for computer-aided dispatch systems to facilitate more efficient sharing of data and information across jurisdictional and responder boundaries. The solutions developed by these projects will enhance and improve the ability of first responders to manage disasters and emergencies with maximum effectiveness and efficiency and give them peace-of-mind that their communications with other responding agencies are secure.

The new publication, which was developed cooperatively by staff from S&T and CISA, presents the distinct goals and objectives for the SRMNI and Emergency Communications projects and provides an overview of S&T’s ongoing R&D of cutting-edge solutions that will help secure legacy and next-generation mobile network infrastructure and help protect the critical communications systems used by the nation’s first responders. 

Download and review the guidebook here, and visit S&T’s Cybersecurity Research page to learn more about our mission to secure and protect our nation’s cyber infrastructure. 

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