British Prime Minister Theresa May is reportedly planning to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to play a role in the construction of the United Kingdom’s 5G network, against the stern warnings of its cyber-allies the US and Australia. While the plan is to use Huawei equipment for the “non-core” sections of a 5G network – the more “passive” equipment like base stations, antennas, and masts – cybersecurity experts disagree on whether a bad actor could still compromise the entire network from those areas.
What is 5G?
A 5G network differs from a 4G network in the way it distributes its computing power. 5G makes use of the radio spectrum in ways 4G can not, allowing for a more high-speed connection. In a 4G system, the computing power and all sensitive info is contained in the protected “core,” but in a 5G system that computing power can be distributed to other parts of the network as needed, providing quicker response times and more stable connections.
May’s plan is to use the Chinese company’s technology for 5G “periphery” elements (also known as “the edge”) while keeping it away from “the core,” reasoning that this separation measure would be adequate security to protect the network. However, a large portion of the cybersecurity community disagrees, with many researchers feeling that 5G by its very nature will eventually find itself with no distinction between “core” and “edge.”
The Five Eyes disagree
Among the opponents of letting a powerful foreign entity like China take part in the UK’s 5G construction are the US and Australia. The two nations are Britain’s own allies in The Five Eyes alliance, an international intelligence group consisting of thought leaders from Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. The US and Australia are strongly vocal against the issue, urging all allies to ban the use of Huawei equipment on grounds of security issues.
One aspect of 5G upon which cybersecurity experts do agree is that when the fifth-generation network is widely available, it will quickly become ingrained in the fabric of our daily lives, more so even than the current 4G. Therefore, should any malicious hackers gain access to the system, its compromise could bring a devastation worse than any previous cyberattack.
Huawei builds equipment more superior and advanced than its competitors Nokia and Ericsson, particularly in regard to its radio access network (RAN) gear — technology that allows devices to hook into radio signals. This kind of tech is critical to 5G, which is why Britain is considering using Huawei.
This debate over top-of-the-line equipment versus national security continues in Parliament. A formal decision is not expected until the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport concludes its own investigation into the matter.