Implications of a Government-Run 5G Network

The Pentagon’s recent Request for Information resurfaces a costly and unfeasible idea that the Trump administration has considered in the past: a government-built and operated 5G network. Calls for a nationalized 5G network are motivated both by a national security and an economic component. Besides the obvious and concerning fact that it would require billions of new tax dollars to deploy, there are some serious security implications that deserve further consideration.

Proponents of 5G nationalization argue, in part, that this is necessary to protect U.S. networks from interference by non-U.S. providers, China in particular, and to ensure the security of critical applications. Yet, the Defense Department and other proponents of a nationalized network have not made it clear how it would improve on the security practices of carriers who have been operating mobile networks for decades and provide the secure and reliable network that they seek to ensure. This raises considerable concerns.

The security of a 5G network is a complex ecosystem that must be protected in its entirety in order to function reliably. The supply chain that makes up the 5G ecosystem – including but not limited to the integrated chipsets and the billions of internet of things devices that will use the network – introduces risks and vulnerabilities that require consistent monitoring and updating.

The Pentagon itself “is facing a future 5G environment where its supply chain will be increasingly vulnerable or compromised,” according to last year’s report of the Defense Innovation Board. To further complicate matters and exacerbate security concerns, evidence suggests that there are more than 200,000 decades-old vacuum electronic devices now in service in the Department of Defense, powering critical communications and radar systems that cover the land, sea, air, and space.

Given the complexity of the myriad of decentralized interconnections characteristic to 5G and the constant upgrading of the software and hardware, it will be extremely difficult to track the possible attacks or introduction of malware. There is no reason to believe that a nationalized 5G network would escape these challenges.

Former Federal Bureau of Investigation General Counsel James Baker has previously noted the extreme complexity of future 5G networks presenting vast security challenges and argued that only large corporate organizations with deep experience in managing such intricate networks have shown to be equipped to provide the “herculean effort to build and operate securely and reliably.”

The Technology Policy Institute has echoed the concerns around the belief that a government-owned and -operated network is inherently more likely to be secure than private networks. The institute specifically noted the government’s terrible track record with security and privacy breaches. Notable examples include the Office of Personnel Management losing nearly 22 million personal records in 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s losing sensitive data and the continuous ramifications of Snowden’s exposure of the cracks in the U.S. intelligence agencies’ security systems.

The recent history of government-run technology should be considered as evidence for the fallacy that a government network would be secure simply because the government owns and runs it.

It is evident that the United States will only be able to take full advantage of the benefits associated with 5G if the network’s providers prioritize reliability and security. The government has yet to explain how it will achieve those objectives. To this point, any consideration of a government-built and -operated 5G network remains an unnecessary and overly intrusive government-proposed solution to a problem that does not exist, but one that could be costly for both the government and taxpayers alike.

If the private sector’s 5G providers are currently more equipped to provide the critical privacy and security protections for consumers, would consumers even be opened to the government monitoring and surveilling their communications? Probably not.

Dr. Krisztina Pusok is the director of policy and research at the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.

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