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Protecting 5G and IoT from foreign state interference


by Gautam Chikermane, Observer Research Foundation

This text has been excerpted from the Observer Research Foundation with permission. Read the full paper here.

The evolution from 0G to 5G has been a trajectory of technology as much as of applications and consumer empowerment. Based on a timeline provided by Firooz B. Saghezchi et al.,[2] the technology of telecommunications has generally advanced every four to 14 years: seven years from 1G to 2G, five years from 2G to 2.5G, four years from 2.5G to 3G and 14 years from 3G to 4G. It is estimated that the shift from 4G to 5G should take approximately eight years, and 5G will be ubiquitous across the world by 2021. The shift from 4G to 5G is not merely about the speed of downloads, though speed is an essential component of what it can deliver. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU),[3] the framework for the development of the International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) 2020 standards takes 5G into account, with a spectrum efficiency that is expected to be three times higher (with very low over-the-air latency) and will support high-speed trains or Massive Machine-Type Communication (mMTC) scenarios,[4] characterised by a large number of connected devices transmitting relatively low volume of non-delay sensitive data, useful to cover IoT, smart agriculture, smart cities, energy monitoring, smart home and remote monitoring.[5]

However, it is what 5G enables that makes the technology as lethal to its users as it is beneficial. In the near future, 5G is set to become the backbone of smart cities and IoT. Through enhanced mobile broadband, the technology can deliver augmented- and virtual-reality functionality. It can enable climate-smart agriculture, smart cities and smart homes through MMTC. It can drive autonomous vehicles, smart grids, remote patient monitoring and telehealth, and industrial automation through ultra-reliable and low-latency communications,[6] all of which depend on the ability of 5G technology to support, link and power the IoT. The IoT has been defined by D. Minoli and B. Occhiogrosso:[7]

“The basic concept of IoT is to enable objects of all kinds to have sensing, actuating, and communication capabilities, so that locally-intrinsic or extrinsic data can be collected, processed, transmitted, concentrated, and analysed for either cyber-physical goals at the collection point (or perhaps along the way), or for process/environment/systems analytics (of predictive or historical nature) at a processing centre, often ‘on the cloud’. Applications range from infrastructure and critical-infrastructure support (for example smart grid, smart city, smart building, and transportation), to end-user applications such as e-health, crowdsensing, and further along, to a multitude of other applications where only the imagination is the limit. Some refer to the field as ‘connected technology’. While the reach of IoT is (expected to be, or become) all-encompassing, a more well-established subset deals with Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication, where some architectural constructs and specific Use Cases have already been defined by the standardisation community.”

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According to Saghezchi et al., 5G technology is still evolving:[8]

“5G is still to be defined officially by standardisation bodies. It will be a system of super high‐capacity and ultra‐high‐speed data with new design requirements tailored towards energy elicited systems and reduced operational expenditure for operators. In this context, 5G envisages not only one invented technology, but a technology ecosystem of wireless networks working in synergy to provide a seamless communication medium to the end user. Thus, we can say that moving from 4G to 5G means a shift in design paradigm from a single‐discipline system to a multi‐discipline system.”

What is this ecosystem? The complexity of 5G technology is such that it needs highly specialised world-class expertise and equipment for its various components. Huawei, for example, procures only some components from its home country, China. These include cameras, laser amplifiers and batteries. It sources antennas, data storage, modems, software and licences from the US; semi-conductors from Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland or Taiwan; and memory cards and display panels from Japan. Since the US placed a ban on doing business with Huawei, the company has had to look elsewhere to source several essential components.[9]

Of significance here is the fact that the intricacy of 5G technology requires equipment providers to source components from a variety of countries and companies (as Huawei does), and these sources include Chinese manufacturers. Thus, even if India were to ban Huawei or Chinese firms for 5G, some Chinese components may still find their way into the Indian market through other vendors. For example, radar sensors are an important component for remote medical diagnosis and surgery, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication for self-driving cars, smart transportation and smart industry. This is a market that Huawei is attempting to enter,[10] and its ecosystem comprises chip designers, component manufacturers, technology providers and system integrators. Companies that make them are spread across Germany, Japan, UK, Netherlands, the US and Sweden. The job of radar-sensor manufacturers, therefore, involves getting the best components from across the world and assembling them. The question that arises then is this: What will be the effective ‘country of origin’ of such a product that, like an Apple iPhone, may have components from companies from all over the world? Conversely, what is the guarantee that 5G equipment from Sweden’s Ericsson, South Korea’s Samsung, Finland’s Nokia or the US’ Cisco will not carry components from China’s Huawei or ZTE? One way forward is to simply rely on the fact that the final assembling, and thus the control and accountability, will be in the hands of a non-Chinese firm and therefore subjected to democratic scrutiny and justice, not to the whims of an authoritarian China.

As a critical telecommunications infrastructure that is global, 5G can deliver a boundless, high-speed, reliable and secure broadband experience; create innovative future networks; provide the networks and platforms to drive the digitisation and automation of industrial practices and processes (including the 4IR); and power the IoT and critical communications services.[11] It can also bring societal changes—individual, corporate, regulatory and governmental. 5G will be to the 21st century what computers and satellites were to the 20th century and steam engines to the 19th century. Through IoT, this technology is expected to fundamentally transform the role that telecommunications plays in our lives, not only delivering a future where all people are connected to one another, but also creating a society where everything and everyone is connected.[12]

While the benefits of 5G are unimaginable, those driving the technology can also wreak havoc that on governments, citizens, financial flows and businesses, at a scale unprecedented and through an intrusion unmatched. In light of this, to hand this infrastructure to a foreign company (Huawei) that is bound by law (See Section 3) to support its nation of origin (China) on matters of intelligence-gathering is to expose India to tremendous risk.

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Imagine the potential destruction if self-driven cars are sent distorted signals, long-distance operations sent incorrect images, traffic lights in smart cities manipulated to create accidents, communications infrastructure for airlines or railways disrupted, business secrets of rival firms culled out, fake news narratives created. Above all, imagine the possibility of injecting spyware into the security infrastructure or into financial systems of stock, currency or commodity exchanges, all of which would be acts of war. In repeated tensions along borders or in support of Pakistan’s terror, any or all of these would be tools in the hand of the Chinese government to destabilise India and its national interests.

No government, no political party, no regulatory structure and no security system the world over can accept this level of risk for its citizens. Preventing the entry of Huawei can be visualised as a technological policy vaccination.

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