November 15, 2019

The Dangers of the 5G Universe

“In January, 2018, Robert Spalding, the senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, was in his office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House, when he saw a breaking-news alert on the Axios Web site. “Scoop,” the headline read, “Trump Team Considers Nationalizing 5G Network.” At the time, Spalding, a brigadier general in the Air Force who previously served as a defense attaché in Beijing, had been in the military for nearly three decades. At the N.S.C., he was studying ways to insure that the next generation of Internet connectivity, what is commonly referred to as 5G, can be made secure from cyberattacks. “I wasn’t looking at this from a policy perspective,” he said. “It was about the physics, about what was possible.” To Spalding’s surprise, the Axios story was based on a leaked early draft of a report he’d been working on for the better part of a year.

Two words explain the difference between our current wireless networks and 5G: speed and latency. 5G—if you believe the hype—is expected to be up to a hundred times faster. (A two-hour movie could be downloaded in less than four seconds.) That speed will reduce, and possibly eliminate, the delay—the latency—between instructing a computer to perform a command and its execution. This, again, if you believe the hype, will lead to a whole new Internet of Things, where everything from toasters to dog collars to dialysis pumps to running shoes will be connected. Remote robotic surgery will be routine, the military will develop hypersonic weapons, and autonomous vehicles will cruise safely along smart highways. The claims are extravagant, and the stakes are high. One estimate projects that 5G will pump twelve trillion dollars into the global economy by 2035, and add twenty-two million new jobs in the United States alone. This 5G world, we are told, will usher in a fourth industrial revolution.

A totally connected world will also be especially susceptible to cyberattacks. Even before the introduction of 5G networks, hackers have breached the control center of a municipal dam system, stopped an Internet-connected car as it travelled down an interstate, and sabotaged home appliances. Ransomware, malware, crypto-jacking, identity theft, and data breaches have become so common that more Americans are afraid of cybercrime than they are of becoming a victim of violent crime. Adding more devices to the online universe is destined to create more opportunities for disruption. “5G is not just for refrigerators,” Spalding said. “It’s farm implements, it’s airplanes, it’s all kinds of different things that can actually kill people or that allow someone to reach into the network and direct those things to do what they want them to do. It’s a completely different threat that we’ve never experienced before.””

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