In January 2020, the UK announced the telecommunications Chinese firm Huawei might provide them with equipment for the much-awaited 5G network. The US President Donald J. Trump and other world leaders, however, accuse Beijing of the intention of using the 5G network for cyber espionage against the UK and other countries or used to sabotage infrastructure, especially considering there is widespread internet censorship in China.
Because of this announcement, the US threatened the UK with a downgrade of its access to US intelligence. Washington went ahead to lead a crackdown on the telecommunications company by enforcing a nationwide ban on Huawei’s equipment and asking its allies to follow in their footsteps. Many experts fear that this tension between the US and China over the 5G technology might result in what they aptly call the “digital iron curtain.” This will mean governments will have to decide who to do business with, America or China.
Why is the world so fearful of China’s tech future? What is 5G technology, and why is it such a big deal? Huawei and other tech companies in China continue to expand their international coverage and tech influence due to their product quality and their affordable prices. Will China’s tech industry change the world’s privacy, security and internet freedom in years to come?
What is 5G Technology?
5G technology will mean a giant leap for mobile technology due to its super-fast speeds and versatility.5G is the fifth mobile network technology, following from 2G, 3G and the current 4G. The move from 3G to 4g was initially all about the speeds, but 5G is much more than just speed. The 5G network is lightning fast, stable, reliable and has characteristics that will enable it to allow devices in smart cities to connect, and support autonomy such as robots and autonomous vehicles.
5G’s network has a greater capacity, allowing these applications that use great bandwidth to run seamlessly and simultaneously without slowing the network down for users. Like the rest of the networks, 5G is also transmitted through radio waves and it will use some 4G frequencies, as well as a frequency called millimeter wave technology.
The millimeter technology enables the 5G capacity and speed, but transmits at a shorter wavelength, meaning it cannot transmit effectively through obstacles such as walls. 5G can also be sensitive to such factors as rain and wind. To get around these issues, engineers are looking at options of installing additional hardware to boost transmissions.
What are the cyber security risks involved with 5G?
Maybe the US and other countries being fearful of Huawei is not for nothing. A few risks have been pointed out such as:
Intellectual property theft
5G is set to replace wired connections and make it possible for the connection and updating of hundreds of devices via the internet, including industrial machines and home appliances. As with any novel technology, researchers have already pointed out flaws, such as in the exchange of cryptographic keys. With the sheer volume of interconnected devices, the risk of the attack surface, or sabotage and data theft, will increase.
There have been some long-standing concerns related to Huawei, with allegations that Huawei has been a beneficiary of stolen intellectual property. Global telecom firms and U.S companies have accused Huawei of stealing their trade secrets. In 2003, Huawei was embroiled in a court case with Cisco who accused the Chinese company of stealing source code, which appeared in various Huawei products. Huawei was convicted of stealing intellectual property belonging to T-Mobile.
Huawei, of course, denies that 5G users will be at risk of the technology being used by the Chinese state for cyber espionage. The company claims it will resist any orders from the state to share any information they have. There is doubt if the telecommunications company can resist China’s domestic regulation, which makes it mandatory that companies share their data with the state. The allies and the U.S seem to agree that there may be risks involved in allowing a Chinese telecoms company access into communications infrastructures.
The impact of China’s growing tech on the world’s privacy
China has one of the worst levels of internet freedom in the world. The country intends to unveil an algorithmic surveillance system, which will harness advances in AI (Artificial Intelligence), data mining and storage to build detailed profiles on its citizens. A vast network of cameras will continuously monitor the citizen’s movements, a move the Chinese state claims will reduce crime and terrorist activities.
China’s surveillance system will be fed by security organs of the communist state which will collect, filter and analyze the data that flows through the internet. Their initial plan was to develop a “Golden Shield” which was a surveillance system, which allowed access to records on every citizen. This project has mostly been reduced to The Great Firewall, which bans all foreign websites including Facebook, Google, and others.
Foreigners who visit China are not exempt from the state’s surveillance webs and internet censorship. Investors and international companies must deal with the censorship of economic news and the American government sanctions on China’s tech firms that have been associated with human rights abuses. Social media giants such as Tencent have helped to detect users who engage in religious or political speeches.
Foreign firms such as Microsoft, LinkedIn and Apple have been forced to comply with the state censorship in China and may be forced to assist in user arrests. Ironically, as it tightens the internet noose at home, the Chinese government and other affiliates, but private companies are affecting freedom of the internet in other countries.
In a 2018 Freedom on the Net edition, it emerged that out of 65 countries under study, 36 had personnel go to China to train on information management, while 18 out of the 65 countries purchased AI-enabled surveillance systems. It is clear that the Chinese government’s efforts to gain social control and ideological conformity are global, and the rest of the world may have to choose whether to resist or comply.
China is relentless in its internet censorship, and yet it remains one of the top tech-savvy countries in the world. The 5G rollout has been soaked in controversy regarding its possible role as a backdoor for spying on the British. The US has threatened to curtail the UK’s access to US intelligence if they go ahead with allowing Huawei to build its 5G infrastructure. Some countries are already considering allowing Huawei to build their 5G infrastructure, and it is just a matter of time before countries of the world are forced to choose sides in what might become a “digital iron curtain.” It will be interesting to watch what unfolds as Huawei remains unfaltering and their coverage expands.