America’s Cyberspace: A Return to Isolationism
William Jordan writes about the US cybersecurity implications of the 5G revolution. Jordan is a Master's candidate at the CEU School of Public Policy and he's taking the CMDS practicum course run by CMDS director Marius Dragomir at the CEU School of Public Policy.
Recent U.S. government posturing on cybersecurity, combined with China’s role in emerging technologies, is putting American consumers on the frontline of national cyber defense. A leaked plan for a nationalized 5G network, and pressure from lawmakers on telecom behemoths AT&T and Verizon to abandon plans to sell a smartphone made by Chinese owned manufacturer Huawei, show that citizens in the U.S. will feel the government’s presence in the digital realm more than ever.
The 5G revolution is coming. The fifth generation of wireless technology marks a major leap in data transmission speeds and new encoding methods from the current 4G standards. With 5G people will experience data speeds around ten times higher than 4G, enabling a massive Internet of Things (IoT) and further connecting every fabric of society. From self-driving cars to smart thermostats and health equipment, it is expected that the IoT will drive over US$5 trn in investment over the next five years, according to a Business Insider Intelligence report.
Faster speeds and more connected devices are easy to conceptualize. However, the move to 5G may fundamentally change the way people interact with the internet. With national security taking a central role in the 5G conversation, limited consumer choice, an end to anonymity and a more splintered internet could all be on the horizon.
A New or Old Aggressor?
The leaked nationalized 5G network plan that came out of the Trump administration this January detailed what national security officials believed to be the only way to ensure American security in the digital realm. The 5G plan calls for a nationalized rollout of 5G infrastructure to be completed in the next three years, according to government documents obtained by Axios, a news portal. To justify this drastic change in U.S. policy, the government report takes aim at China and Huawei, and the threat they present for U.S. internal security and economic interests. The document paints China as a neo-colonial aggressor that through Huawei enacts “market dislocating principles to bind nations into their orbit in the information domain,” according to Axios.
This attitude towards China and Huawei is not new. Huawei, the world’s third largest smartphone producer by number of units shipped, and the largest in China, has long been viewed suspiciously by the American government. Huawei and ZTE, China’s largest mobile equipment providers, have deep ties to the Chinese government: 70% of China’s mobile infrastructure has been reserved by the Chinese government for the two companies. A 2012 report by the House Intelligence Committee stated that Huawei’s and ZTE’s close relationship with the Chinese government presented significant security concerns to U.S. critical infrastructure as well as the potential for foreign espionage.
In January 2018, Reuters reported that U.S. lawmakers were applying pressure on AT&T to end commercial ties with Huawei. This report came on the heels of U.S. lawmakers successfully lobbying the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. telecom watchdog, to stop AT&T and Verizon from selling a phone made by Huawei, the Mate 10 Pro model. These events coincided with the introduction of a new law, the Defending US Government Communications Act, which, if passed, will ban government agencies from using any equipment or phones from Huawei or ZTE.
When considered alongside the other previously mentioned events, the bill, currently being reviewed by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, exemplifies intensifying U.S. policy when it comes to China and cybersecurity.
Another Day, Another Wall
There are many valid reasons why the U.S. is wary of the threat China represents to network security. Just last year the African Union (AU) discovered their new headquarters donated by China had been rigged with backdoors and microphones. The problem with the U.S. 5G plan is that it is designed with rhetoric and ideology in mind, not practicality.
The plan argues that, “America did not design two big oceans and two friendly borders to ensure its physical security, but our citizens benefit nonetheless. The information domain must be designed with the same natural characteristics,” according to Axios. The report also claims that in order to protect American security interests, the “[5G] network itself must be built with active defense in mind”, and that a “network that identifies the adversary and responds to attack is [a] fundamental requirement of the information age.”
This language, while seemingly innocuous, is representative of the current zeitgeist that has gripped the U.S. and much of the world. Erecting barriers, securing the homeland, and a return to isolationism have dominated the political conversation. The language of the 5G network plan “represents another way in which democracies are embracing certain attributes of totalitarian states,” said Cameran Ashraf, a professor at the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU) and co-founder of AccessNow, an organization dedicated to defending and expanding digital rights around the world.
A further indication that the plan is based more on ideology than technicality, is the inability to achieve its own purpose. “5G will only be a portion of the network. Even with the 4G being the current standard, many people today are still using 3G connections to access the internet,” said Ashraf. By only securing a portion of internet connectivity, the network will still be vulnerable as a whole.
The plan has seen massive political blowback, even within the Trump administration. Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding who was the National Security Council senior director for strategic planning, and floated the plan, has now been relieved of his position, according to Wired.
However, the timing of the leak, in conjunction with the recent news pertaining to Huawei should not be overlooked. Network security is a serious problem, but how the U.S. government chooses to frame the conversation on 5G infrastructure deployment will have an impact on Americans and their relationship with cyberspace. Even as it remains unclear how the 5G rollout will actually proceed, it is apparent that the government’s presence in cyberspace is likely to increase under the banner of national security, warranted or not.
Yates Jordan is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at Central European University (CEU). He specializes in media and communication policy, with particular focus on human security in cyberspace. Prior to attending CEU, Yates lived in Nairobi, Kenya, working in the refugee resettlement field.