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5G and what it means for your privacy


After almost a decade of development, 5G mobile technology is finally starting to roll out to the masses. However, finding information about the privacy and security concerns of this new generation tech and what it means for everyone is not that easy. Read on to find out how we got to this point, what 5G brings to the table, and just why people are so worried about its privacy implications.

The predecessors: 2G, 3G, 4G

To understand all the implications of 5G – the 5th Generation – you need to know the generations that came before it and what they meant to the development of mobile communications technology.

Back in the 70s, mobile communications were limited to phone calls. At the time, this technology was known as AMPS, TACS, and later NMT, but it’s now commonly referred to as 1G. This generation brought mobility to analog voice calling, but as the potential of mobile communications grew, so did the need for new technology.

Enter the 2G era of the 90s, which revolutionized the game with its new GSM technology. Switching from analog to much more efficient digital transmissions, GSM introduced the data signal. This type of mobile signal gave birth to text messaging (SMS), which has since overtaken voice calling as the most popular way of mobile communication.

But while SMS was a huge novelty, 2G brought about something even bigger named mobile internet. In the late 90s, the first generation of internet-ready mobile phones entered the market. First, they were powered by WAP technology, then by GPRS and EDGE (also known as 2.5G). What’s more, 2G consumed less power than 1G, thus prolonging battery life. These innovations allowed mobile phones to become an integral part of everyday life.

However, while 2G was a pioneering development, the internet was very slow and far from easy to navigate. Therefore, 3G technology was introduced in the early 2000s, offering up to four times faster speeds and video calling.

Around the same time, mobile phones with touch screens emerged. With mobile internet much faster and easier to use, it quickly became the new normal. Soon, the even more powerful 3.5G shifted the focus of phone usage to powerful apps offering everything from social media to online gaming.

Naturally, the need for speed kept growing, and 4G was introduced to satiate it. Today, this is the standard communication technology found in most modern mobile phones. The major improvement that 4G (and later 4.5G) brought was a much faster transmission rate. While 3G had a maximum download speed up to 10 Mbps, 4G offered a theoretical maximum of 300 Mbps. As a result, HD video streaming and calling became virtually lag-free, allowing people to use their phones for work as if it was a computer on a wifi network.

While 4G and 4.5G speeds are still enough for most mobile users, there are already further developments taking place in society that requires even more capable and efficient mobile internet. Now, ten years after the introduction of 4G, the focus shifts towards 5G.

The successor: 5G

5G has been in the works for almost a decade and has already started its first phase of mass deployment in South Korea, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, and other countries. Earlier in 2019, Samsung Galaxy S10+, the first phone capable of connecting to 5G, was released. But how does 5G differ from 4G?

While this may sound cliché, but the coming of 5G will change life as we know it. Each generation of mobile technology had its goal, from the new data transmissions of 2G to the speed improvements of 4G. The 5G is here to facilitate the Internet of Things (IoT) – the connectivity of everyday items to the web.

Mobile internet is rapidly expanding beyond smartphones, from smart light bulbs to smart toys to self-driving cars. But to accommodate this universal connectivity, mobile internet has to become faster, more powerful, and more efficient.

5G achieves all this and more, introducing these new performance standards:

  • Better speeds: As of now, 5G data rates have reached 15 Gbps. The goal is minimum 20 Gbps for downloads and 10 Gbps for uploads – that’s more than twenty times faster than the fastest 4G networks.
  • Better latency: 5G signal delay is being reduced to 1-4 ms, a far cry from the 100 ms of 3G. This is vital for the response times of self-driving cars, among other new technologies.
  • Better capacity: To guarantee that all devices can be connected at the same time, 5G capacity will allow for at least 1 million connected devices per square kilometer.
  • Better energy usage: 5G signals are more energy-efficient and they drop into low energy mode when not used.
  • Better mobility: Allowing stable connection at up to 500km/h, 5G will give the green light to self-driving cars.

These improvements, including high-bandwidth millimeter-wave communications, are made possible by the new technologies developed specifically for 5G.

While 5G sounds like an incredible and much-needed addition to mobile internet technology, it has its disadvantages. One of the most concerning problems is privacy.

Privacy issues

One of the goals of 5G was to improving privacy and security, focusing on snooping and cyber-attacks. However, as 5G comes closer to a wide-scale roll-out, multiple privacy concerns are being uncovered. Two main areas need to be addressed: privacy issues relating to inherent flaws in the technology, and privacy issues relating to companies involved in the development process.

Issue #1: the technology itself

The first issue relates to the technology that makes 5G possible – the millimeter waves.

The frequency of the millimeter waves ranges from 3 kHz to 300 GHz. Lower-bandwidth frequencies offer great coverage because they can travel long distances, but they’ve become overcrowded. As a result, developers have turned to the less crowded high-bandwidth millimeter waves of around 30 GHz and above for 5G. While these frequencies offer exceptional speed, they cannot travel anywhere near as far as the low-bandwidth spectrum. And here, the privacy issue begins.

When your phone is on and connected, it regularly “pings” the nearby cell towers which transmit all data signals. This allows to track your location, but since cell towers are spaced around 500 m to 3 km apart, it can’t be done with pinpoint accuracy. However, because millimeter waves can’t travel far, many more cell towers will be needed to support 5G.

With cell towers clustered closer together than ever – including in popular locations like shopping centers and hotels – 5G will enable pinpointing the location far more accurately.

Usually, an idle phone pings nearby towers at set intervals to preserve battery, meaning that users can’t be tracked in real-time. However, researchers have found that the paging protocol used to let you know you have an incoming call can make your phone ping at any time.

Known as the Torpedo exploit, this flaw allows attackers to start “torpedoing” phone calls to your device, allowing to pick up patterns that reveal your location at that time. Unfortunately, the same exploit can be used as a basis to block messages and calls, spoof messages, and even monitor your calls and texts. 4G and 5G both allegedly have built-in protections against this type of attack, but these protections have been found to be insufficient.

The good news is that such attacks are very difficult and time-consuming, so most people have nothing to worry about. But if you’re a high-profile person or someone with lots of enemies, you’re at greater risk of becoming a target.

In 2018, the Five Eyes announced that they could force the tech industry into building ways for them to snoop into 5G. The Five Eyes is a security alliance between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand which follows a treaty of sharing intelligence information.

So if you’re sending sensitive information, there is every chance that this intrusive alliance (along with the larger Nine and Fourteen Eyes) could use such exploits to uncover and share data about you. This risk also applies to VPN users if their provider is based in one of the Fourteen Eyes countries. If the government can access your traffic and data, using a VPN no longer offers the same benefits.

To conclude, this issue with 5G technology is a big privacy concern for those who are determined to stay hidden from hackers, rivals, and the government.

Issue #2: the key players

Since the new technologies used in 5G will require new hardware, many of the key players behind 5G are telecom companies. Some of those working on 5G are Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, NEC, ZTE, Qualcomm, Verizon, AT&T, and Huawei.

When it comes to privacy and security concerns, the most notable company on the list is Huawei.

The Chinese giant is the second-largest smartphone company in the world, responsible for $100 billion in telecoms equipment trade. In the past, Huawei has been one of the biggest component providers to Western mobile companies. However, the US has banned the use of Huawei equipment and called on allied nations to join in.

It all boils down to Huawei’s trustworthiness. The US is concerned that Huawei might be building a “backdoor” into 5G equipment which would give them access to the unencrypted traffic and metadata of every 5G user. These worries are rooted in Huawei’s obligation to the Chinese government (according to The Times leak in April 2019) as well as the arrest and charge of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei.

Meng was arrested in Canada on December 1, 2018, on fraud allegations and later charged for the same act, with the US calling for her extradition. Later, on January 11, 2019, a Huawei employee was arrested in Poland on allegations of espionage. As it appears that foul play is at work at Huawei, it’s unsurprising that some countries want them out of the 5G race.

Interestingly, while New Zealand and Australia have followed the US and blocked the use of Huawei components, the UK has chosen an alternative route. A representative stated that the risk Huawei poses is manageable, and while mobile operators are advised to keep Huawei out of the “core” of their 5G networks, it’s fine to use its tech in “non-core” equipment. 

In April 2019, a leak in The Telegraph stated that Britain's National Security Council has agreed to allow “non-core” Huawei equipment. Soon afterward, Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, who was cited as an opposer of the Huawei deal, was sacked.

Some believe that the UK wants to lower Huawei costs in the wake of Brexit. If the opposition between the US and the UK continues, it arguably threatens the Five Eyes alliance. Member countries may not be willing to share intelligence with the UK if they feel that China compromises its security.

Bottom line

One way or another, 5G will represent a revolutionary generation of mobile technology. Its potential is what makes the privacy concerns of such great interest because 5G is too good to be scrapped over security concerns. In the end, 5G should do more good than bad for society. And, although it brings privacy concerns, it offers new security benefits as well.

Of course, people in charge of the development and standards for 5G must do their best to resolve the flaws behind it. That’s why it’s important to stay updated on 5G news: the more pressure the players receive from the public, the more inclined they’ll be to fix the problems.

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