PERSPECTIVE: 5G risk is about more than simply securing competitive advantage

This piece, by Nate Snyder, originally appeared in The Hill on May 17, 2019.

The dawning of 5G network capabilities will revolutionize telecommunications and online networks. Data transport speeds will increase to 10 times faster than what they are with 4G. As countries across the globe discover and develop new 5G innovations, so too will terrorist organizations, non-state actors, and lone offenders. If there is a new breakthrough with the public at-large, it will also be leveraged by bad-actors; they will develop and discover their own insidious innovations and exploitations.

While working on counterterrorism efforts at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Obama administration, I became familiar with how non-state actors and terrorists exploit any vulnerability they can, especially when it comes to the exploitation of online networks and using the internet. Today, these bad actors exploit network vulnerabilities to target and disrupt critical infrastructure, access and exploit information, and people.

It’s no secret that the Chinese government has their own built-in capabilities to control their citizens’ online access. It is also widely known that Huawei is essentially Chinese State controlled and influenced. Recent reports note that Huawei is 99 percent answerable to the Chinese government. Various backdoors, control measures and surveillance applications have been built into the Chinese “Great Firewalled” online infrastructure.

Many of these surreptitious access points and controls are coded into core software and engineered into hardware. While at DHS, I once met with a senior Chinese counterterrorism delegation and asked how they address online radicalization to violence. Without hesitation, they replied, “We turn the internet off.” If the Chinese use these vulnerabilities to their advantage, you can guarantee that terrorists will exploit them as well.

That is why Theresa May announcing that the United Kingdom will allow Huawei to build non-core 5G functions is still a problem. Not only is it a U.K. security risk, but it affects American and allied countries’ security. Allowing Huawei onto our collective 5G networks, would be like inviting in a Trojan horse that can be exploited by China and other bad actors. The British Government Communications Headquarters reported compromising vulnerabilities in the Huawei supply chain. Further, it was recently reported by Bloomberg that in 2011 and 2012 Vodafone discovered security flaws in Huawei software, that while not fatal, continue compromising Huawei’s reputation.

Because of these systematic software and hardware vulnerabilities, quite likely created with purpose, Huawei and the Chinese 5G supply chain cannot be trusted. The supply chain security is beyond suspect; some American allies have already banned the use of Huawei 5G technology. Since the Huawei and Chinese 5G supply chain has more holes than Swiss cheese, it is fair to expect not if, but when bad actors will exploit these vulnerabilities.

Some of our greatest deterrents against terrorism and its use of the internet and online networks are awareness and intelligence. With Huawei potentially holding a monopoly on the flow and curation of 5G information globally, who knows if they will allow adequate access to investigate terrorist threats, emerging trends, and threat vectors. Huawei will essentially become an all-knowing information provider and could handicap the U.S. and allied intelligence communities. Imagine the embarrassment of relying on Huawei for intelligence to investigate a domestic terrorist threats in our own backyard — let alone the potential global reach and ramifications. If access is given, the information may be suspect. Needless to say, bad actors will exploit these blind spots.

The U.S. should lead on fighting for shared principles and ensuring competition and interoperability among the technology vendors. The current administration should focus on building a coalition of our closest allies, instead of ridiculing them. This coalition could push for mandating interoperability among technology providers, ensuring that one company does not become the sole provider for unimagined future technologies like 6G or 7G, improving security risks by diversification and threat dispersion.

The coalition should also demand that Huawei provide interoperable technology to strengthen non-core technology. Without diversity of secure technology in the 5G ecosystem, the U.S. leaves itself open to exploitation. Should these demands not be met, the coalition will need to develop new information sharing agreements to mitigate the fact that Huawei cannot be a trusted reliable information provider.

The U.S., along with our closest allies, must lead in the race to develop forward facing, competitive 5G infrastructure technology and policy, or risk falling prey to competitors with malicious intent. If we are able to get our act together, we may still have the opportunity to positively impact the 5G development, but we must act now. Our national security depends on it.

Nate Snyder is a senior advisor with Cambridge Global Advisors. He was a senior counterterrorism official with the Department of Homeland Security and the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force under President Obama.