What is 5G and why should you be worried

  • Simone Neads
  • 26.4.2019 07:49

With the upcoming international summit on Huawei happening in Prague next week, the future of 5G networks will be discussed. But what is 5G anyway? And why would it be more of a security threat than Huawei’s 4G networks?

The first thing to understand is that 5G is still being developed. While the basics of the technology are all there, there are still significant challenges to overcome, and much of the technology is still being tested. That being said, 5G promises to be significantly faster than 4G, and solve many of the problems that 4G networks are running into.

As more devices come online, the frequencies that we use currently use will become more crowded, which will lead to a slowing down of the 4G service. The 5G networks would use the shorter ‘millimetre’ waves meaning faster speeds, up to 20 times as fast, meaning it might be possible to download a full HD movie in seconds. Using these shorter waves comes with some drawbacks though. The waves are not able to penetrate through obstacles in the same way and don’t travel as far, so a whole new network of towers will need to be installed – something that Huawei is promising for Europe.


5G would allow for simultaneous upload and download, something that could be very important for police and military applications


Other possible advances would allow for simultaneous upload and download, something that could be very important for police and military applications. 5G could also include beamforming, which would focus signals towards specific devices meaning less interference and more possible traffic. Some estimates say as much as 1000 times more traffic would be possible than on 4G. However, to accommodate the higher amount of data on the system, many carriers have used mobile edge computing, a type of cloud computing that processes data at each base station to reduce network congestion. This would mean that unlike 4G networks that send your data through encrypted tunnel protocols, in 5G networks each transmission station could have unencrypted access to all user data on the network - so gaining access to even one station could be a threat to national security.

With the 5G networks promising to support all new devices, from smart homes to self-driving cars plus new robotics and AI developments, the security threat is obvious. We are poised to become exponentially more reliant on a network that is less secure, and might even come with built-in backdoors.


Dependency on the Huawei's 5G networks would give Beijing great leverage over the national governments


Huawei is currently the closest to being ready to sell 5G networks, which has raised the concerns of many Western countries. Many intelligence agencies have warned against the close relationship between Chinese tech companies and the Chinese intelligence community. Huawei has denied any connection, however, the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency, warns that the tech companies usually do not refrain from cooperation. This could mean that the new infrastructure could contain backdoors, easy for the Chinese to exploit.

There are also concerns that Huawei will be the only supplier of the 5G networks giving them a monopoly over the communications sector. This would limit the state’s power to control the company, dependency on the 5G networks would give Huawei great leverage over the national governments. Some countries like Canada and Norway are looking to support other tech companies in developing 5G technology to create fair competition. Canada is investing $40 million into Nokia’s development of 5G, and Norway says it will be choosing Ericsson to supply its hardware.


Australia, Japan and the United States that have already taken state legislative measures to block the reach of Huawei


Currently, there is no consensus on the right way to move forward with the Huawei 5G technology. Is it a political, economic, or security issue? Some like the UK are addressing the issue by forming regulatory bodies, the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre is a bridge to work closer with Huawei on security issues. Some like Poland see this as an intelligence and national security issue. And there are those like Australia, Japan and the United States that have already taken state legislative measures to block the reach of Huawei in their countries. In the US, Huawei was blocked from building any key infrastructure, as well as completely banned from supplying any equipment or services to the government - something that Huawei is currently suing the US over.  The EU has so far remained fairly neutral on the issue of 5G, advising member states to complete their own national risk assessment, however, the European Commission had opened up an investigation into 5G that will be available by October 1st 2019.

On May 2nd, more than 30 countries, as well as representatives from NATO, will meet to discuss and hopefully find some common solutions to the 5G security threat. Hopefully, the talks will be successful because without a common understanding of the threat and how to react to it, individual state action may be useless. Cybersecurity is not limited by national borders. As more of the defence and political infrastructures rely on internet connectivity, these security questions will become increasingly transnational.

About author: Simone Neads


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