- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2019

It’s a technology that promises to revolutionize the telecommunications landscape in the U.S. and around the world, but 5G networks also present one of the most complex, geopolitically sensitive national security threats that the country has seen in decades. Military and intelligence insiders say if Washington and Silicon Valley get it wrong, then the nation could be permanently vulnerable to systematic Chinese espionage.

With governments around the world awarding lucrative contracts to build and maintain the powerful next-generation networks, the questions of national interest, technological efficiency and security are coming to a head.

From North America to New Zealand, officials fear China’s government, working in concert with leading state-tied telecommunications giants such as Huawei, wants to use the coming global implementation of fifth-generation wireless networks as an opportunity to steal information, eavesdrop and unleash crippling cyberattacks on an unprecedented scale.

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The White House, Pentagon and American intelligence agencies are deeply concerned about the threat, but some analysts say they may not fully grasp the depth of the problem.

The deep-seated security vulnerabilities associated with 5G are technical and complex, but at their core is a simple fear that Chinese firms could include in their products covert electronic windows to monitor average people, companies and public officials, and that they could use that ability as a 21st-century weapon.

“If you build in a back door to it, it’s game over,” said Chris Meserole, a Brookings Institution fellow who specializes in the impact of technology on U.S. foreign policy.

“The fear ultimately is that China monitors the traffic that’s passing through American networks, Western networks, and it’s recording it … and sending it back to China, and China has this gold mine of data,” he said. “The bigger fear from a military perspective is that China builds in a back door and they selectively use it.”

The “amateur thief,” he said, “goes and steals your whole wallet. The sophisticated thief steals one credit card and leaves the wallet intact — you don’t even notice it until it’s too late.”

The scale and scope of 5G technology make the threat exponentially greater, analysts say. Just as 3G networks ushered in the smartphone and 4G revolutionized society by facilitating apps such as Uber, 5G will connect users like never before and bring about the fastest, most reliable wireless services in history.

Beyond simply providing faster networks, 5G is expected to bring about wholesale changes to the way Americans live, enabling long-awaited technological advances such as driverless cars, more efficient medical care with greater use of robotics, reduced roadway congestion because of interconnected traffic lights, more sophisticated video game networks, and the ability to control virtually any device or appliance in the home with a smartphone.

“5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the car, affecting entire economies and benefiting entire societies,” Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf said two years ago when explaining the massive changes 5G will bring.

New dangers

The technological explosion, while a blessing for businesses and consumers, also offers far more openings for cyberattacks or other disruptions. The Trump administration has taken steps to prohibit the U.S. government and its contractors from using most Chinese-made equipment, but the sheer scale and interconnectedness of wireless systems could leave federal agencies and other official channels vulnerable.

Even if the U.S. avoids all Chinese products during the rollout of 5G, sensitive American information could fall into Chinese hands unless virtually every other nation adopts a similar ban. That seems virtually impossible with Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE Corp. ensconced in markets around the globe and rivaling top Western companies in their sophistication of 5G technology.

Huawei, the world’s biggest network equipment maker ahead of Ericsson and Nokia, has repeatedly insisted that the government in Beijing has no influence over its operations, although that has not eased international wariness.

Each sector of the U.S. government and economy could be vulnerable, but nowhere is the threat more urgent than inside the Pentagon.

From satellites to missile systems to a vast computer network spread around the globe, the U.S. military has become so dependent on technology that it is a prime target, especially in the era of 5G.

“If China sets the standard for 5G, our military is so reliant on some of those systems that it would be very, very bad for us,” Eric S. Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy during the George W. Bush administration, said last month at the annual Texas National Security Forum, where concerns over the implementation of 5G were at the top of the agenda for military and intelligence insiders.

The ways 5G could be wielded as a weapon are virtually endless.

Cyberhacking and data theft are the most obvious, but security analysts say that if Beijing or its state-affiliated telecommunications companies find any way into U.S. 5G systems, then the attacks could be much more subtle, difficult to anticipate and nearly impossible to prevent.

“If somebody were able to hack a device and turn up everybody’s air conditioning in New York City by 3 degrees at the same time, you would knock out the power grid in New York completely,” Declan Ganley, chairman and CEO of the U.S. communications company Rivada Networks, told the Center for Security Policy in a recent radio interview. “And you could keep doing that and cause massive knock-on or rolling blackouts.”

There is ample evidence that China is highly motivated to — at the very least — exploit its commercial technology advances to infiltrate U.S. companies. In October, Bloomberg reported that leading American firms such as Amazon and Apple were compromised by small Chinese computer chips implanted in pieces of their hardware.

Specialists say those methods are increasingly easy to detect.

“That’s actually pretty easy to guard against. You can create a way of scanning for that pretty easily,” Mr. Meserole said. “What’s harder to guard against aren’t hardware attacks. It’s more software” attacks.

The challenge for companies and for the U.S. government as a whole, Mr. Meserole said, is to ensure that the ability to conduct software attacks is stopped before 5G networks are built and implemented early next decade.

“In the early 2020s, there’s going to be a massive build-out across pretty much every city globally,” he said. “Once it’s built out, you’re not going to go back and rebuild it.”

China vs. the world

There is little debate that Chinese technology remains at the forefront of 5G development, making it difficult — though certainly not impossible — for nations to deploy large-scale wireless networks without relying on products from China. Federal communications officials have conceded in recent months that the U.S. regulatory framework has made it tougher for the American system to keep pace with China’s more efficient state-run, top-down approach.

“So long as we have multiple bites of the regulatory apple and the regulatory uncertainty that flows from that, we will always be behind those countries that have established a national policy on 5G,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai told a Senate panel last summer.

Specialists say there is little debate that Chinese companies are leading the way.

“The best devices in 5G so far, those are produced by a geopolitical rival of the United States — China,” Mr. Meserole said.

But there is growing pushback around the world against China and its leading telecommunications companies, Huawei and ZTE.

President Trump is eyeing an emergency executive order that would prohibit all U.S. companies from using any equipment made by ZTE or Huawei, Reuters reported late last month. The president has signed a bill barring the federal government and its contractors from using products made by either of those companies.

Last month, Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver at the request of the Trump administration. She was accused of covering up international economic sanctions on Iran.

The incident made waves around the world and threatened to upend broader U.S.-China trade negotiations. But it also put Huawei under a newfound spotlight as much of the world seems to be reaching a consensus that the firm represents a serious danger.

In November, New Zealand cited security concerns when it barred major mobile companies from using Huawei equipment in their 5G upgrades. Australia has implemented a similar ban.

British telecommunications giant BT announced last month that Huawei would be blocked from providing technology for the United Kingdom’s core 5G network, although it will be allowed to bid on some less-sensitive infrastructure contracts.

The government in Beijing has reacted angrily to moves to restrict its leading telecommunications companies as it criticized the decision in New Zealand.

“The economic and trade cooperation between China and New Zealand is mutually beneficial in nature,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news conference just after the announcement. “We hope New Zealand will provide a level playing field for Chinese enterprises’ operations there and do something conducive for mutual trust and cooperation.”

The state-controlled Global Times newspaper in an editorial this week compared the campaign against Huawei to what it said was a larger effort by the U.S. and other nations to contain China’s rise to economic superpower status.

“Anxiety is flourishing in Western nations that the day will soon come for China to replace U.S. leadership,” the publication said. “In their eyes, China is getting too big, too strong and ready to challenge their status. Yet pursuing global leadership is not on Beijing’s to-do list, not before and not now.”

American lawmakers are pushing other key allies — with which the U.S. shares intelligence and classified material — to follow suit and ban all Huawei and ZTE products. In October, Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urging him to keep Canada’s 5G expansion free from Chinese equipment.

“As you are aware, Huawei is not a normal private-sector company. There is ample evidence to suggest that no major Chinese company is independent of the Chinese government and Communist Party — and Huawei, which China’s government and military tout as a ‘national champion,’ is no exception,” they wrote.

The silver lining to the concerns over 5G, some analysts say, is that the U.S. and its allies seem keenly aware of the dangers long before the technology hits the market. That awareness stands in contrast to the failure to anticipate the dangers of election meddling via social media or other unique 21st-century threats.

“This time, we can see it coming,” Mr. Meserole said. “We’re going into this with eyes wide open.”

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