5G stands for ‘Fifth Generation’, meaning the 5th generation of mobile technology. No matter what you may hear to the contrary, it will become the new standard. The problem will be getting to that level, because there are, as with all new technologies, problems that must be overcome. For the moment, the positives outbalance the negatives, but the negatives cannot be dismissed out of hand.
5G’s biggest positive is speed. 5G delivers speeds that are 10 to 100 times that of current 4G networks. We’re talking speeds of gigabytes per second, which, quite frankly, will be astounding for most users. Here’s a graphic representation from Qorvo
Of course, this means that many downloads will be finished in seconds. Streaming will be seamless. But, probably more importantly for gamers and others, virtual reality will be able to manipulate huge amounts of data to improve the virtual experience. Smart devices will be smarter. Self-driving cars will be safer. What’s there not to like?
The first 5G problem is that today’s cyber infrastructure is not built for it. 4G networks were built to operate within certain frequencies. When first implemented, no one really planned that cellular networks would see so much information traveling through them. They are now so crammed with electronic information that they are slower than they should be. In order to get around this problem, 5G networks will need to operate in a new frequency range, a higher and faster frequency range.
Great! You may say. However, there is one problem. When the frequency of transmission is increased to gain higher speeds, the transmission distance decreases. In other words, cell towers or transmitters cover smaller areas. Not only that, higher frequency waves do not penetrate walls or foliage as easily as lower frequency signals do. Here is a table that gives some examples.
So it seems that, in order for 5G to be effective, telecommunication service providers will be forced to install many more transmitters. If 5G was implemented on the current networks, there would be numerous dead spots which would take the ‘mobile’ out of mobile phones. This implementation will cost money and, you guessed it, someone will have to pay for it. You can probably guess who that someone will be. But don’t despair. These new transmitters will be smaller than 4G transmitters and can be more easily installed, which will contribute to softening some of the price shock.
The installation of numerous 5G transmitters worries some. They believe that the sudden increase in nearby 5G transmitters will fill the air with millimeter waves that could be harmful. Although studies on this negative aspect of 5G are continuing, none have really found any problems. Unless this connection is shown to be significant, the deploying of 5G will continue.
No, it will probably not be the health aspects of 5G that will undermine it. It is a whole other angle entirely. This is the cybersecurity risk that using 5G may expose us all to. Look at it this way. Imagine that some day the 5G network infrastructure is finally in place. Cities will be the first to be completely 5G compliant but, eventually, you can imagine transmitters on every telephone pole in every small town. This would mean more transmitters that could be compromised by a cyber attack, more endpoints to secure, more personal devices in danger.
Of course, cybersecurity begins at the manufacturing level. Even so, the most securely made device will still be vulnerable if it is connected to an insecure 5G network. The network itself is dependent on the transmitters for good security. So who’s making these transmitters and their technical components? In the world of 5G technology, Huawei is far and away the leader. The other competitors, however, (Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, ZTE) are right on their heels. Whether the U.S. or much of the world will ever get a chance to experience Huawei’s technology is now debatable. The Trump administration placed Huawei on its Entity List in May, meaning that it is basically blacklisted.
Excerpt from Federal Register for Huawei’s Placement on Entity List
But is this fair? Is Huawei really a threat to the cybersecurity of the U.S. and other nations. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, says, no. In an interview for CNBC he said, “we never participate in espionage, and we do not allow any of our employees to do any act like that. And we absolutely never install backdoors. Even if we were required by Chinese law, we would firmly reject that,”
This statement was countered by New York University law professor and Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow, Jerome Cohen. He told CNBC that,
“There is no way Huawei can resist any order from the [People’s Republic of China] Government or the Chinese Communist Party to do its bidding in any context, commercial or otherwise. Huawei would have to turn over all requested data and perform whatever other surveillance activities are required,”
So who’s right? In my opinion, after following the actions of the Chinese government for years and in my conversations with businesspeople working in China, there is absolutely no way that a Chinese company could refuse a ‘request’ from the Chinese government. In fact, Chinese law (2014 Counter-Espionage Law, Article 22) states the following,
“when the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant organizations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse.”
Now, no one expects Huawei to build a backdoor into its 5G equipment at the manufacturing level. It would be too easy to discover. No, if any backdoor appears, it will be hidden in a later update, after the equipment is in place. Of course, 5G equipment from other manufacturers could be compromised by fake updates as well, but these would be fake updates not infected updates from the manufacturer. Such fake updates would come from bad actors using social engineering tactics which would probably try to lead the target to some spoofed update page that would eventually lead to the installation of a backdoor. Could the U.S. government ask an American company to alter its equipment to help in surveillance? Sure, and they probably have. However, the threat of imprisonment for non-compliance would not be the certainty that it is in China.
In short, if Huawei could convert their 5G transmitters into surveillance equipment, all the numerous transmitters in a 5G network could gather data from any American individual, any company, or any government or non-governmental organization. Just imagine having someone standing at your window watching everything you do for 24 hours a day.
Sure, this may be overstating the negatives, but it is something to keep in mind. 5G networks will be built, and, in so doing, they will present, to the nefarious, the irresistible opportunity to use them for information gathering. If compromised, these networks, by their very nature, would become the most widespread information gathering network that has ever existed.