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The coming of widespread 5G technology promises more than just faster everything, enhanced capacity and greater reliability. Leading proponents of the wonders of 5G, such as the theoretical physicist and author Michio Kaku, paint a picture of a true technological “paradigm shift, a game-changer.”

The self-described futurist invites us to imagine a lightning-fast global communications network that will fuel dramatic advancements in society’s productivity and ultimately “enrich and empower our lives.”

“Every once in a while there is this technology which changes the entire landscape,” he says in a video produced by wireless network operator T-Mobile. Much like the arrival of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-1400s triggered “a Renaissance of knowledge,” he explains that 5G hold the promise to bring “connectedness … to the rest of the world” for millions of people who currently lack easy access to broadband technology.

Let’s hope he is correct. Because there is also no shortage of bright minds waving red flags about potential risks to health and online security. Many are warning that 5G also holds the power to enrich and empower high-speed malicious hackers, supercharging their ability to wreak untold havoc in the global cybercrime epidemic.

“One of the fundamental challenges of 5G involves balancing its far-reaching potential for human progress against the significant new security risks presented by this extraordinary technological breakthrough,” said cybersecurity expert Chuck Bane, academic director for the University of San Diego’s online Master of Science in Cyber Security Engineering program and retired naval officer whose experience includes collaboration on cybersecurity projects with the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA and the DoD.

What is 5G?

Remember when 4G promised to revolutionize data-based communication across the globe? That was so 2010. The “G,” of course, stands for “generation” — meaning that 5G is the next generation of wireless mobile communications technology after 4G.

And generations, in this case, move much more quickly than in human terms. A quick review of the evolution of wireless communication reveals that the advent of 1G in the late 1970s marked the beginning of cellphone technology; so people born prior to that have gone from a 0G world to 4G, and now 5G. Each generation has been marked by technological advancements that allow greater data transmission speeds.

But, as technology website CNET explains, “5G networks will bring us much more than a simple bandwidth or ‘speed’ improvement on phones: Critical improvements like low latency, intelligent power consumption, high device density and network slicing make it a breakthrough.”

How Does 5G Work?

“Like other cellular networks, 5G networks use a system of cell sites that divide their territory into sectors and send encoded data through radio waves,” according to PCmag.com.

The fifth generation of wireless internet technology will rely on hundreds of thousands of these “small cell” transmitters, which consume less power but cover smaller areas than 4G towers.

“The size and number of the small cells which power 5G also means that they will be placed anywhere in streets and buildings,” according to Forbes.com, marking “the biggest shift in telecommunications since the invention of the cellphone.”

For more details on how it all works, HackerNoon.com offers helpful explanations in “5 quick things to know about 5G.”

How Fast is 5G?

5G is sometimes described as 100 times faster than 4G. Or, depending upon what type of application you’re talking about, 10 times faster. Or 1,000 times faster.

Why is enhanced speed such a game-changer?

Faster data transmission and greater bandwidth obviously has far more important applications than consuming media, playing online games and exchanging work documents and files online.

In the medical world, for example, it can accelerate caregivers’ ability to deliver services like “physician-to-physician consultations, at-home monitoring and video-based telemedicine,” according to ModernHealthcare.com.

Another example involves self-driving cars, which rely on a continuous stream of data to operate. “The quicker that information is delivered to autonomous vehicles, the better and safer they can run,” according to a CNBC video.

The CNBC report forecasts 5G becoming the essential “the connective tissue for the Internet of Things” — enabling the worldwide network of internet-connected devices to “grow three-fold by 2025, linking and controlling not just robots, but medical devices, industrial equipment and agricultural machinery.”

The Pros and Cons of 5G

Along with the many positive benefits of 5G technology detailed above comes a lengthy list of concerns, from the individual and personal to the national and global.

  • Could malicious hackers use the speed of 5G to more easily infiltrate people’s personal devices, home security systems, self-driving cars, pacemakers?
  • Could enemies use it to bring down essential infrastructure like communications systems or power grids?
  • Is China, as some observers believe, ahead of America in terms of being the dominant player in 5G technology?
  • And what about public health concerns involving unanswered questions about possible exposure to radiation emitted by the so-called “small cells” that help move the data at lightning speeds?

Such concerns are closely examined in media reports with headlines like the following:

Concerns about potential health risks presented by electromagnetic radiation produced by higher-frequency radio waves emitted by the 5G small cells have been front and center (Wired.com offers some reassurance in an article titles “Worried About 5G’s Health Effects? Don’t Be”), but this report will focus on the cybersecurity implications of 5G.

What Does 5G Mean for Cybersecurity Professionals?

The future of wireless technology holds the promise of total connectivity.

But it will also be especially susceptible to cyberattacks and surveillance.

That’s the premise of an in-depth review of the “terrifying potential” of 5G published in The New Yorker.

The article cites estimates that “5G will pump $12 trillion into the global economy by 2035, and add 22 million new jobs in the United States alone,” while ushering in “a fourth industrial revolution.”

However, “A totally connected world will also be especially susceptible to cyberattacks. Even before the introduction of 5G networks, hackers have breached the control center of a municipal dam system, stopped an Internet-connected car as it travelled down an interstate, and sabotaged home appliances. Ransomware, malware, crypto-jacking, identity theft, and data breaches have become so common that more Americans are afraid of cybercrime than they are of becoming a victim of violent crime.”

Industry watchdogs warn that 5G has the potential to worsen existing threats and introduce new ones. For example, the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, has identified five ways in which 5G networks are more vulnerable to cyberattacks than their predecessors in a report titled: “Why 5G Requires New Approaches to Cybersecurity.”

  1. The network moves away from centralized, hardware-based switching to distributed, software-defined digital routing, removing the potential to utilize “hardware choke points where cyber hygiene could be practiced.”
  2. “5G further complicates its cyber vulnerability by virtualizing in software higher-level network functions formerly performed by physical appliances,” a move that increases reliance on “standardized building block protocols and systems [that] have proven to be valuable tools for those seeking to do ill.”
  3. “Even if it were possible to lock down the software vulnerabilities within the network, the network is also being managed by software — often early generation artificial intelligence — that itself can be vulnerable. An attacker that gains control of the software managing the networks can also control the network.”
  4. The dramatic expansion of bandwidth creates additional avenues of attack, as the “small-cell antennas deployed throughout urban areas become new hard targets.”
  5. New vulnerabilities are created by connecting tens of billions more hackable smart devices to the Internet of Things — “from public safety things, to battlefield things, to medical things, to transportation things — all of which are both wonderful and uniquely vulnerable.”

Since one of the chief benefits envisioned for 5G is the ability to connect more and more devices to the IoT, this “also increases the threat vectors for hackers,” according to HackerNoon.com.

Another potential “worst-case scenario” outlined by HackerNoon: “Faster networks can also mean faster ways for viruses and malware to spread. If more users are on the network, then you also have the potential for more infected devices and systems than ever before.”

Commenting on the concern that a greatly expanded IoT multiplies the potential points of entry for cyberattacks in an article titled “5G Dangers: What are the Cybersecurity Implications?” Heimdal Security notes that, “5G technology could also lead to botnet attacks, which will spread at a much higher speed than the current networks allow it.”

Of particular relevance to the cybersecurity community, the dawn of the 5G era demands that new and improved defenses and cybersecurity protocols be developed and put in place to counter the potential risks.

This means the current and future work of many cybersecurity professionals will be inextricably connected to understanding and defending against the new security risks, both known and unknown, posed by this rapidly emerging technological breakthrough.

Because, in the final analysis, a world with vastly improved speed and bandwidth, as well as greatly expanded threat vectors, creates new possibilities for humans to do both wonderful things and horrible things — faster than you can say “5G.”

 

About the Author:  

Dr. Michelle Moore is academic director and professor of practice for the University of San Diego’s innovative online Master of Science in Cyber Security Operations and Leadership degree program. She holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Administration with a concentration in Homeland Security and a master’s degree in the Management of Information Systems. Her research topics are dedicated to the ongoing progression of cybersecurity, cyber law, cybercrime, national and international cyber policy, and disaster recovery efforts.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.