The security risks that 5G present
Who would have thought that the relatively simple proposition of connecting your phone to the internet with a data plan, could turn in to a national security threat? Unfortunately, that unlikely seeming scenario is a problem concerning some of the top legal minds in the worls and those who advise global leaders on technology risks.
At least two governments so far (the USA and Australia) have publicly stated that they don’t want their communications infrastructure to be built by Chinese manufacturers, fearing a day that, when needed the most, the network goes down as a result of a switch being thrown in China.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) raised the ‘Global threat to the IoT’ (Internet Of things – the growing number of web based devices encompassing a broad remit including everything from livestock to park benches)’ arising due cyber security as a major issue in Davos this year to bring the issue to the fore. The issue is as much philosophical as it is technical. It’s the progress in innovation which represents much of the threat. It’s hard, they point out, to anticipate where we will end up, and the risks we will face years from now, given the speed with which technology solutions are evolving and the decisions we’re making.
Why is 5G such an issue from a security point of view?
The immediate concern, the cause for the public statements made to this point in America and the UK, is the relatively strong ties between government and business in China. Potentially, the ruling party could, at some point, exert influence on manufacturers based in their country, to include new ‘loopholes’ or exploit existing technical features in the 5G equipment they provide, offering an opportunity for them to ‘hack’ infrastructure capabilities.
Beyond the threat posed by their Cisco equivalents, China’s growing wealth means that their companies can legitimately acquire others on the international market, a common practice in international finance, effectively achieving the same result (the ability to influence the effectiveness of their networking equipment) through the back door, retrospectively.
To be clear, at the moment, there is no evidence (at least in the public domain) that China has done anything untoward, only the risk that they might, at some point to come.
Huawei and ZTE, two prominent Chinese equipment manufacturers are often used as examples of companies which post a threat but the problem does not end with them. 8 out of the top 22 smartphone handsets sold in the world in 2017, were made by Chinese manufacturers. The country is ubiquitous in the provision of modern electronics.
But 5G networks will be built ‘somehow’– and what happens then?
Analysts suggest that 5G will revolutionize internet connectivity. Its features will enable billions of IoT devices, connected in parallel. 5G will speed communication between connecting trains, cars and logistics as well as the potentially underpinning infrastructure of national importance like electricity networks and water supplies.
Part of the problem we face is that China has developed into one of the world’s best networking hardware manufacturers. In many ways, Chinese manufacturers are the obvious place to go in the process of building national 5G networks, projects which are starting to get underway in the offices of every telco in the world.
Imagine a circumstance in which the current tensions in the South China Seas are exacerbated to the point that The USA (or one of its allies) was seen as a threat to the Chinese administration. In times of conflict, Western economies would like to be sure of the integrity of their domestic infrastructure, rather than worry about hacking.
But there are risks on both sides
In the absence of a clear government policy, which applies to every operator in a country (or, for that matter, the world), there is a commercial risk associated with the security threats that China, at least in theory, pose. Imagine a circumstance in which one phone company listens to lose government ‘guidance’ and chooses not to build its network using Chinese equipment, while another ignores the same prompt. The latter, in this scenario, could build a better network, faster, for their companies and at a lower cost. The fact that they might gain a commercial advantage could influence every network to do the same thing.
Summing up the risks associated with 5G
The implications go beyond just technology and take us into the broader question of China’s expanding international ambitions. 2020 will be the 100 year anniversary of China’s declaration of a communist state. At that milestone, they will move from being a low-income country to a middle-income country. And behind the scenes, they may have a powerful ‘off’ switch, whatever path is chosen by Western governments.