Guest post by Marc Gagné , MAPP Senior Privacy and Data Advocate, Cyber Intelligence and Director at Gagne Legal Services.

A Government-Controlled 5G Network: The Greatest Privacy Joke of the Year So Far

In its latest deep dive into Bizarro World, the Trump Administration is proposing a national, government-owned 5G communications system for the United States. The goal? To beat China in a global game of Internet supremacy.

If you’re not quite seeing the joke in that, let’s rephrase this: Trump, champion of the free market, a devotee of Ayn Rand, wants a state-owned communication system. And he wants it in order to beat China, the world’s largest proponent of state-owned enterprise.

There are many levels of irony in this but we can start with this: creating a state-owned 5G network may or may not be more secure but regardless, it would be… state owned. Your privacy red flags should be going off right now. The U.S. government would be ‘winning’ a 5G war but the American people would most certainly be losing the privacy war.

Privacy vs. Security

Privacy vs. security: it’s a familiar dichotomy, especially for the United States. How many privacy infractions have been meted out in the name of security under their Patriot Act? And the Trump Administration: one of the first things they did after taking office was strip privacy rights from non-U.S. citizens and effectively dismantle Privacy Shield(1). Then, a few months in, they wiped out a huge swathe of internet privacy regulations(2).

According to the Trump Administration, a state-owned 5G network will ‘keep the Chinese out’ and make the nation’s growing volume of data transfer more secure. A senior White House official told Reuters(3):

“We want to build a network so the Chinese can’t listen to your calls,”

But what might happen when the government owns your phone lines, your data transfer lines, and virtually every manner of communication lines you use?

And what happens when that government already has a questionable record on privacy concerns? Privacy goes right out the window. Sure, maybe the state-owned 5G network will protect U.S. internet consumers from the Chinese but will it protect them from their own government?

Why ‘Keeping the Chinese Out’ Might Actually Make Sense

These ideas aren’t stemming from completely unwarranted paranoia. There is indeed a possible security threat from the Chinese if countries like the United States allow the current state of 5G to proceed.

Two Chinese telecommunications companies — ZTE and Huawei — are on their way to cornering the market on 5G technology. They get subsidies from the Chinese government, so they’ve done a good job of dominating the Chinese domestic market. That gives them a huge leg up toward becoming the global superpower of 5G networking equipment.

The big problem here is that both ZTE and Huawei have very bad reputations when it comes to security. Both the United States and the UK have probed these companies for alleged spying for the Chinese government(3).

So when AT&T wants to sell Huawei headsets to its U.S. customers, for example, there’s a giant, gaping security hole. This almost happened, before U.S. intelligence stepped in and caused a halt to it because of security concerns(3).

So there are some security concerns… it’s just that the Trump Administration’s solutions are a bit heavy-handed and they seem to disregard privacy issues altogether.

‘Keeping the Chinese Out’ — Not What it Seems

So in essence, it’s not whether 5G is necessarily more secure. 5G still relies on multiple networks that are all connected, after all. The security benefit the Trump Administration is talking about is more about the hardware and the technology. If we buy it from the Chinese, it could have spyware built in or backdoors that only they can open.

So when officials say things like, “we want to build a 5G network so the Chinese can’t listen to your calls”, what they really mean is “we want to be the ones to build the 5G network so we can make sure we don’t use any Chinese equipment or technology”.

But guess what: hardly anyone else in the world is making it*.

“It’s Just Business”

This is another great irony. As it stands now, getting a 5G network up and running quickly could possibly require lots of U.S. investment in Chinese tech products.

“The big difference is that China has two equipment providers in Huawei and ZTE, whereas the US has none on the radio side,”

-Mark Hung, Vice President of Research at Gartner

If the administration is all about preventing security risks by blocking the use of Chinese tech, then what’s the alternative? We’d have to develop our own… and fast. As Mark Hung put it, “…we’re still not developing homegrown talent”. 

So is this about trying to develop a domestic tech industry? Is it all “just business“? Remember who we’re dealing with here and the possibility seems very strong.

Then there are the Logistical Problems

Is it possible that Trump officials, lacking expert knowledge of telecom industry, seized onto the word infrastructure when they saw it amidst 5G documentation? If you don’t recall, a main selling point during the Trump campaign was that he was good at ‘building things’.

Indeed, on page 19 of the National Security Strategy, the 5G network plans are mentioned in the same paragraph with plans for airports and roads(4).

But developing the 5G infrastructure is going to require a lot more policy than it takes to build a hotel or improve an airport.

That’s because 5G is not built the same way as 4G. Because 5G uses different airwaves than 4G, a different type of cell (called a ‘small cell’) is needed. These cells are more easily blocked by physical obstruction so there have to be a lot of them(5).  Plus, each carrier wants to own its own cells.

But cities don’t want a lot of those small cells. They have an interest in controlling their own public rights-of-way like street lights and poles. Three sets of small cells on every 10th streetlight or pole is ugly, it raises public safety concerns, and make the sidewalks and roadways crowded. Therefore, they have already been negotiating with telecoms to hash out agreements. There’s speculation that telecoms would lose interest in developing these networks if they were federally-owned(6).

“I don’t think any of the carriers would buy into a plan like this because they all want their own networks.”

-Mark Hung, Vice President of Research at Gartner

A state-owned network would give very little voice to those city concerns and make those telecom-metropolis agreements pretty much null. We’re talking big-time federal encroachment, something the Chinese know a lot about.

Recap

So let’s recap. Trump’s people want to save their country from the Chinese hackers and spies so they propose building a 5G network. Only it’s not the 5G that will save the day and make the country more secure. It’s the avoidance of Chinese technology.

And by their reasoning, the only way to ensure that no Chinese tech is used, is to make the 5G network federally-owned. So what’s the solution, when hardly anyone else is making it? Make our own and let the federal government run the show. That’s right: beat the Chinese by taking a page from their own red book, stifling the existing tech enterprise that’s already underway while you’re at it.

 

Edited and prepared by Amy Murphy, Journalism student from DCU.


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