5G wireless networks are rolling out and early trials are underway by major carriers. Though you may not be personally impacted for another year or two, 5G will have a big, positive impact on you and is a huge technology shift. This upgrade to a ‘5th generation’ wireless infrastructure has game-changing implications on mobile networks that carry data for all sorts of devices: mobile phones, IoT devices, autonomous cars, drones, etc. And while we have come to expect better and faster every few years from technology, 5G is in a class all by itself.
How Fast is 5G Really?
Let’s start with today’s 4G networks. 4G specifies network transmission speeds up to 100Mbps. A recent report found that major US carriers deliver less than that – somewhere between 53 and 6Mbps. 5G promises typical speed increases on the order of 20x, advancing wireless networking by bringing fiber-like speeds and extremely low latency to almost any enterprise or home location. That will make your wireless connection near Gigabit speed and perhaps you can think about getting rid of our home Internet connection!
Industry experts opine that 5G will accelerate the adoption and use of the Internet of Things (IoT) since these devices and their applications collect and stream huge amounts of data. Given the literally billions of IoT devices expected (Gartner predicts 25 billion IoT devices by 2021) to be online, 5G is a necessary enabler. But will all these devices, and us, be secure on a 5G network?
How Secure Will 5G Networks Be?
Beyond all the vendor hype and hoopla, genuine security concerns abound. 5G technology is immature and there are questions about some of 5G’s technology underpinnings. For example, a group of researchers discovered security flaws in 5G networks (4G as well) which could be used by attackers to intercept phone calls and track the locations of smartphone users. The paper titled “Privacy Attacks to the 4G and 5G Cellular Paging Protocols Using Side Channel Information” details how these new vulnerabilities can defeat the security designed in to 5G to make it more difficult to spy on mobile users. In a different study, “A Formal Analysis of 5G Authentication,” researchers from ETH Zurich, the University of Lorraine and the University of Dundee caution that 5G is immature, insufficiently tested and it enables the “movement and access of vastly higher quantities of data, and thus broadens attack surfaces”.
Additionally, 5G has not, cannot be tested at scale. There is the likelihood that 5G will exacerbate some of the same security issues and attack vectors that we have today. The size and sophistication of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks have risen at an ever-accelerating pace,” according to a report by cybersecurity company A10 Networks. “As new 5G networks become operational, we expect the size of attacks will dwarf these records.”
State Actors and Global Implications
Unlike previous technology issues in the security landscape, a new critical concern in the entire 5G security discussion is the role of Huawei. Both a key provider of 5G cellular equipment and 5G phone chipsets, Huawei has been accused of being an agent for the Chinese government. The CIA says that Huawei is funded by Chinese State Security and their technology enables ‘backdoors’ for eavesdropping and surveillance. Huawei has repeatedly denied that it poses any risk and said it would never allow Beijing to get its hands-on customer data. Experts are skeptical about Huawei’s assurances because Chinese national security laws appear to compel companies operating in the country to comply with all government requests for such info. The repercussions reach into every corner of the world:
- Several countries have decided to ban the use of Huawei products.
- The Wall Street Journal reports that President Trump is weighing an executive order that could ban Chinese telecommunications gear from U.S. networks, but the plan is facing resistance from U.S. carriers in rural areas whose networks run on Huawei equipment.
- The Department of Homeland Security is conducting a broad review of risks posed by 5G technology, officials said, as the U.S. grapples with concerns about the new network’s vulnerability to hacking and the rise of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co.
Will 5G Networks be Secure?
Expressing concern over the security of 5G and future telecommunications systems, a group of senior U.S. senators introduced a recent bill that would require President Trump to maximize the security of domestic network infrastructure and that of foreign allies. The Secure 5G and Beyond Act was formally proposed by Senators John Cornyn, Richard Burr, and Mark Warner, with co-sponsors Susan Collins, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Michael Bennet. The bill seeks to:
- Require the President to create an inter-agency strategy to secure 5th generation and future generation technology and infrastructure in the United States and with our strategic allies.
- Designates NTIA as the Executive Agent to coordinate implementation of the strategy in coordination with the Chairman of the FCC, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Defense.
- Ensure that the strategy does not include a recommendation to nationalize 5th generation deployment or future generations of mobile telecommunications infrastructure in the United States.
Clearly 5G is inevitable but its path may not be as clear cut, or as rapid, as once envisioned. Should Huawei being banned from US and other European and Asian networks, carriers will be forced to seek other vendor options. That will take time and slow 5G rollout and adoption. And without 5G speeds, already stretched mobile networks make break under the strain and stress of billions of IoT devices. But without careful evaluation of the Huawei issue along with 5G’s immaturity and lack of scalable testing, we may all be living in a faster – yet more vulnerable – future.