Huawei sign and person standing in front of it demonstrating equipment (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)
The Chinese technology firm Huawei is competing for 5G contracts, but poses a security risk, the U.S. says. (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)

Fifth generation (5G) networks will revolutionize future economies, but also will introduce a range of significant risks. As countries build out their 5G networks, they should work with trusted partners to minimize these hazards, said a senior U.S. official.

Cyber policy issues are critical to not just protecting communications networks, but also to national security, human rights, and economic prosperity around the world,” said the U.S. State Department’s cyber diplomat, Robert Strayer, to reporters April 29.

Strayer emphasized that the U.S. is engaging with partners and allies to share the security concerns related to future 5G infrastructure and networking. An important element of this is a careful evaluation of the 5G supply chain and equipment vendors.

Telecommunications towers (© Sattaya/Shutterstock)
(© Sattaya/Shutterstock)

“We should be concerned about all parts of the 5G network,” Strayer said. “No part of a 5G network should have parts or software coming from a vendor that could be under the control of an authoritarian government.”

If the infrastructure at the heart of 5G — such as cell towers, network servers and critical software — is controlled by an untrustworthy vendor or a foreign power, then they could do anything from “undermine network security to skim personal information, conduct espionage, distribute cyberattacks, disrupt critical infrastructure,” he said.

“When it comes to Huawei and ZTE, the United States has been crystal clear: We don’t believe you can have [that] technology in your systems and still have a trusted network,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said May 8, referring to the Chinese tech companies that have closely aligned with the Chinese government.

“There’s no way to effectively mitigate the risk of having an untrustworthy vendor [even] at the edge of the network,” Strayer said.

Looking to the future

With faster data speeds and better wireless reliability, 5G technology is expected to be incorporated in everything from smart electrical grids to self-driving cars to home appliances.

“We think the stakes couldn’t be higher with regard to 5G technology, because of all of the things we build out over the coming years on top of that tech,” Strayer told the BBC. “We think there’s unacceptable risk in letting untrusted vendors provide that base infrastructure, because they could disrupt any of those critical services.”