Man standing inside antenna testing room (© Jason Lee/Reuters)
A Huawei engineer stands under a 5G network antenna. Antennas like this will carry massive amounts of data about users and households. (© Jason Lee/Reuters)

As the world begins building 5G networks, U.S. officials are raising the alarm that the new technology will help authoritarian regimes to further repress and control their own citizens.

With 5G networks’ faster connections and greater bandwidth, “tens of billions of new devices will be connected to the internet in the next few years,” U.S. cyber diplomat Robert Strayer says.

For most people, 5G technology will improve their quality of life. But for some, it could be used to constrain their freedoms. Companies headquartered in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are already developing and using advanced surveillance technologies, which are used to control populations at home and abroad.

Beijing’s data prison

The Chinese government uses technologies to undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms. It gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and uses information to promote corruption and repression, conduct arbitrary mass surveillance and silence dissent. Beijing’s future acquisition of advanced technology will only exacerbate this situation.

The PRC is currently using “technology for pervasive and arbitrary high-tech surveillance and involuntary collection of personal data,” Strayer says.

In Freedom House’s report “Freedom on the Net 2018,” 18 out of 65 countries analyzed had purchased systems from Chinese companies such as Yitu, Hikvision and CloudWalk. These companies combine “advances in artificial intelligence and facial recognition to create systems capable of identifying threats to ‘public order.’”

The emerging technology of 5G will make such close monitoring and control of citizens even easier.

Beijing’s export: oppression

“Chinese technology firms are already working with authoritarian regimes around the world — often hand-in-hand with the Chinese government — to suppress freedom of expression and other human rights,” Strayer says. “With all of these [internet-connected] services relying on 5G networks, the stakes for safeguarding these critical networks could not be higher.”

With the adoption of 5G networks, much of this surveillance will be automated, and the PRC could export their repressive model of governance. That’s one of the reasons America is concerned about 5G.

Zimbabwe, as part of its Belt and Road trade deal, “is importing China’s facial recognition system and will likely apply it in ways that will reduce the cost of authoritarianism,” according to a report earlier this year.

“If Chinese companies build the underlying 5G infrastructure, they will be in an even better position to facilitate these activities around the globe,” Strayer says.