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The Huawei 5G security threat is “real,” attendees of the online CYBERSEC GLOBAL 2020 conference heard on 29 September.

Speaking in a panel dedicated to military use of 5G, US DoD Technical Director for 5G, Joseph Evans, said the Huawei 5G equipment provided “could be backed-in by state actors to meet their needs” - such as surveillance. But Huawei’s is not necessarily the only 5G technology available, he said. “There are tenders in the US and allied partner nations that can meet the needs of the marketplace.”

The US is engaged in a crusade against the Chinese 5G network. This includes the “Clean Network programme,” aimed at building a China-free clean network, and strong pressure on EU allies to ban Huawei from supplying 5G - amid warnings that Chinese involvement in EU networks would put NATO at risk. EU states are divided on the issue.

According to Nikodem Bończa Tomaszewski, CEO of Poland’s largest telecoms operator, Exatel, the issue is broader. If, in 2020, there are problems with China, he warned, “in 2025 we can have problems with other vendors.” Which is why Polish policy towards all cybersecurity and telecommunication vendors is that “we don’t trust anybody.”

MEP Riho Terras said the Chinese government will be listening "for sure" - because China's legislature tells people “to bring all the information they get from universities” worldwide back home. However, he warned, “we have to deal” with this. Huawei’s prices are the best on the market, and civilian companies will go for them. “Other solutions are either too expensive or not capable enough”.

Military 5G

5G has tremendous potential in the military domain: it could enable AI, virtual and augmented realities and autonomous weapons – applications many nations are exploring. In the US, DoD is currently testing 5G capabilities by carrying out a crash programme of collaboration with industry, Evans told attendees. The first part of the programme – ‘Accelerate’ – aims to hasten DoD's adoption of 5G technologies, while the second – ‘Operate Through’ – is to ensure 5G networks are both secure and provide the ability to operate wherever, he added. The third – ‘Innovate’ – intends to explore ‘next-G’ technologies “6G, 7G, pushing the technology edge so the US is well-positioned there.” Currently, 12 major US bases are involved in programme activities, such as exploring dynamic spectrum sharing, augmented and virtual reality combat training, smart warehouses and examining 5G core technologies, he said.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Poland believes there is a “high potential in militarising 5G technology,” Tomaszewski said. In the future “we will still have soldiers, but the kinetic work will be done by AI machines [and] G5, 6, 7 will play the most important role.” The country is implementing a hybrid public-private model to develop - and run - 5G nationally. This will lead to cost savings, lower electromagnetic emissions and a great military cybersecurity level for all, he added.

Terras – formerly commander of the Estonian Defence Forces – noted that, unlike the internet and emails, 5G was not meant to have military standards – instead, its “handicap [is] its security network,” he explained. “5G is relying on the physical data centres and infrastructure,” and to avoid the whole network disappearing if data centres are removed, a backup is needed. Everything can be listened to and jammed, he added. Nevertheless, due to its importance, the military “must find a way” to use 5G.

Caterina Tani reporting from Brussels for MON

The 5G technology ‘stream’ of the Cybersec Global 2020 virtual conference. (Photo: Cybersec Global 2020)

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