“We need to build up our AI capability to automatically detect threats,” says Angela Tay, Assistant Director of the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s new Telecom Cybersecurity Specialist Team.

Singapore plans to roll out 5G mobile networks by next year, and the government hopes to support industry in making full use of this new technology. But for that to happen, cyber security is of utmost importance.

IMDA has set up a dedicated cybersecurity unit to help telecom networks become secure and more resilient, and AI will be a key component of their arsenal. “To improve cyber operations efficiency, we need to build our capabilities in areas such as machine learning and security automation,” Tay asserts. “The end goal would be to achieve AI-assisted cyber threat detection and response.”

GovInsider caught up with her recently to learn how IMDA is working with telcos, industry and other government agencies in anticipation of the nationwide rollout.

The future is 5G

The government has set aside a cool $40 million to build up the 5G ecosystem, according to recent reports. 5G networks will provide speeds up to 20 times faster than what we are used to right now with 4G networks. “Think of it as a redux of the way the Internet changed our lives when it became mainstream at the dawn of this millennium,” writes GovInsider tech columnist Amit Roy Choudhury.

As part of ecosystem-building efforts, IMDA has launched Technology Calls, which are calls for proposals for companies to explore the possibilities of 5G. This way, companies can test 5G technology in specific use cases, in a live environment.

The first phase of these Tech Calls will centre around two industries: maritime and manufacturing . IMDA is collaborating with PSA Corporation Limited, Singapore’s ports entity, to test and assess 5G for a smart port. Meanwhile, the A*Star’s Advanced Remanufacturing Technology Centre of Singapore’s research agency is joining forces with property developer JTC to trial 5G at Jurong Innovation District.

These trials, which are planned to start later this year , could open up a great deal of possibilities for 5G-enabled innovation. 5G and IoT could be used together to track the locations of driverless vehicles in a factory, as one example. A local telco has also recently announced that it is partnering with agencies to test driverless ships.

Detecting cyber threats faster

Where does AI fit into all this? The cybersecurity specialist team “engages vendors, and we do partnership across agencies within the government to level up on our cybersecurity capabilities” in anticipation of 5G, Tay says. The Cyber Security Agency is one such partner.

Tay’s team current focus are on two crucial areas for improved cybersecurity: machine learning-based data analytics and security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR). Data analytics is key to detecting threats in telecom networks, Tay believes. The team is building systems that will make sense of the sea of data for signs of cyber threats. When complete, it will be automated, and can detect security anomalies and threats faster, Tay continues.

How does SOAR work in practice? Once the system detects a threat, it sets into motion a set of actions to swiftly remediate the said threat before more damage is done, according to Tay. In technical terms, this is the “incident response playbook”. For example, “If a hacker has defaced your website, what should the next step be? Actions such as redirecting visitors to an alternative website could be configured in SOAR to be executed automatically,” says Tay.

“Instead of our analysts trying to manually eyeball certain threats in the system, we are trying to develop systems that will help them to do this more effectively,” she continues. The end goal is to work towards better cyber defence response times, Tay says – what is also described as “machine speed mitigation”. This means that IMDA hopes to develop cyber defences that are “almost instantaneous, so you can actually mitigate threats at a very fast speed”, explains Tay.

All these help Singapore’s networks to become more resilient to threats and attacks, and recover even faster when they do happen. When it comes to crucial digital services, even seconds matter, Tay notes.

Need for speed – and standards

The concept of 5G is still very new. Organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union are working on developing international 5G standards by next year. “5G standards under 3GPP has not been finalised in terms of the technology configurations that will be adopted,” Tay explains.

When these standards are released, the most important thing is to ensure that “regardless of which technology vendor the operators get their 5G products from, we can secure it at the same level”, Tay muses.

From a regulatory standpoint, IMDA will ensure that the telcos that will develop 5G networks are also well equipped to secure them. “We will work with them to understand whether the controls they have put in place are sufficient or not, and recommend additional security measures if needed,” Tay continues.

In the meantime, 5G trials are important for the government to learn more about the potential of 5G and the applications that are “best suited for Singapore’s landscape”. The results could prove useful for future deployment, and perhaps inform policymaking as well, Tay points out.

It is early days, and Tay’s team has the difficult job of building security tools for something completely new. “5G is different from previous generations and we are still learning more about how we can better safeguard Singapore’s telecommunications infrastructure,” she acknowledges.

But when all is said and done, 5G could mean transformative changes in all sorts of industries. From driverless cars to robot workers, faster and more pervasive connectivity can change our daily lives in untold ways.