Critical Update: The Hidden Threats of 5G


Nextgov goes inside the technology that will underpin billions of interconnected devices. 

Fifth generation wireless technology, or 5G, is anticipated to usher in an entirely new age of wireless connectivity. Billions of devices—self-driving cars, service robots, smart devices inside homes, wearable technology and sensors on streets—will communicate and create massive troves of sensitive data.

Government and technological leaders working at the forefront of America’s 5G deployment efforts are excited about its potential but new concerns arise as well. Each new device will be an attack vector that adversaries could use to access entire networks. So far, America has yet to embrace a streamlined plan to secure the evolving infrastructure or purge susceptible hardware and devices that already exist in today’s systems.

Former Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler, current FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, and former National Security Council Senior Director for Strategic Planning Robert Spalding, who also served as the U.S. defense attaché in Beijing, are all working to help ensure America preserves the leadership it previously established during the 4G network boom. Each shed light on the evolving threat landscape, how insiders are working to support a secure 5G deployment for all communities across America, and the national security issues that render a safe rollout increasingly challenging.

“We are talking about a world where we can’t leave folks behind,” Starks told Nextgov in the Critical Update interview. “We are talking about and are excited to talk about 5G, but there are a lot of folks that are still living in a no G world.”

On top of the critical need for fair 5G deployment, the officials also offer details about the controversy around Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei, which already supply foundational components of 5G infrastructure across the globe, often at much cheaper rates than competitors. In May, President Trump signed an executive order essentially prohibiting American companies from obtaining technology products from any entity deemed to be a national security threat. The move amplified an international debate about whether it’s safe to roll out foundational 5G hardware and technology if it’s made by a foreign company that may allow its government access.

Huawei fervently denies allegations that its practices pose any threat to American national security. Still, officials warn its 5G presence and China’s strategic initiatives could allow both to catastrophically impact our society.

“Because essentially China’s built [Chinese companies] this defensible fortress in China through which to grow and master 5G, meanwhile Huawei is going around building these 5G networks all around the world, so it makes it real easy for them to sort of move in and take over,” Spalding said. “It doesn’t make sense for the Chinese to attack us, you know, to run into us with self-driving cars, although they’ll have that capability. It’s much easier for them to just slowly suppress the ones they want to suppress.”

Securing 5G leadership will be a monumental effort for stakeholders across the government, industry and academic sectors. In that light, the three officials also detail the relentless work they’re embarking on to boost security across the nation’s current infrastructure and what they believe the government needs to do now to secure the imperative technological advantage that 5G will bring for all years to come.

“Networks have always been attack vectors—so why should we be surprised that the network of the 21st century is a new attack vector? We ought to respond accordingly,” Wheeler said. “I mean you have no choice, you must evolve.” 

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