Next year, fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology will begin to form the backbone of future economies and public services. It will touch every part of our lives, from cellphones to self-driving cars, to critical services such as electrical grids and water systems.

“With all of these services relying on 5G networks, the stakes for safeguarding these vital networks could not be higher,” said the U.S. Department of State’s cyber diplomat, Robert Strayer.

Unfortunately, the new infrastructure needed to support 5G can subject countries to threats to their national security. A major concern is that equipment might be installed by a company that can be controlled or swayed by a foreign government.

Graphic showing elements of a 5G network infrastructure over image of smart city (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson )
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson )

This is why President Trump signed an executive order on May 15 that bars U.S. companies from using telecommunications equipment or services of any firm posing a national security risk.

In particular, Chinese telecom vendors are required by law to serve the interests of the Chinese government and its intelligence services. If Huawei or other Chinese equipment manufacturers build a country’s underlying infrastructure for 5G, then the Chinese government would have the potential to exert control over those networks.

Graphic and text on implications of Chinese ownership of 5G companies (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson/Photo: © Shutterstock)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson/Photo: © Shutterstock)

“There is no differentiation, really, between private sector companies and the government in China,” Strayer told PBS NewsHour. The Chinese government “can compel companies to take action. … They are subject completely to the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Wiretaps or worse

An untrusted vendor could skim data that travels over another country’s 5G network, either to degrade services dependent on the data or to access confidential information. Speaking about Chinese companies, Strayer said that they “could be ordered to undermine network security — to steal personal information or intellectual property, conduct espionage, disrupt critical services or conduct cyberattacks.”

But the problem goes beyond governments that might compel a vendor to conduct espionage. 5G technologies will provide the backbone for infrastructure that will run future economies: electricity grids, water pipes, autonomous vehicles and telemedicine. This infrastructure will be vulnerable to catastrophic tampering or disruption if controlled by untrusted vendors.

The way forward

“As countries around the world upgrade their communications systems to 5G technology, we are urging them to adopt a risk-based security framework,” Strayer said. “An important element of this risk-based security approach is a careful evaluation of hardware and software equipment vendors and … the extent to which vendors are subject to control by a foreign government.”

A version of this story was previously published on June 4.