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Trump's crazy 5G plan actually 'diagnoses a real problem'

The US isn't likely to build its own cellular network, but that doesn't mean there isn't real concern over wireless security.

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The Trump administration's proposal to nationalize 5G wireless networks highlights real security concerns for these next-generation wireless networks. 

Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

No, the US government isn't likely to get into the wireless business. But the Trump administration's out-of-the-blue proposal to build a 5G wireless network raises some legitimate concerns worth paying attention to.

President Donald Trump's National Security Council has discussed the possibility of building a 5G network to counter Chinese spying on US mobile devices, according to report by Axios. The government-run network would supposedly protect emerging technologies that will rely on super-fast 5G, like self-driving cars, and ensure the US remains a leader in wireless.

The idea got shot down almost immediately by analysts, experts and all five FCC commissioners, including the three Republicans. Chairman Ajit Pai said he opposed the federal government building and operating a nationwide 5G network. Fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly called the plan "nonsensical."

"I've seen lead balloons tried in DC before," O'Rielly said. "But this is like a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto."

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Financial analysts also dismissed the idea.

"This is so far-fetched that it doesn't deserve to even be discussed," said Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson.

The immediate pushback means the proposal isn't likely to get very far. Even White House officials told Recode the plan is "dated." But as ridiculous as the idea sounds, it could reignite discussions about security concerns over 5G, the superfast fifth generation of wireless network technology that's expected to connect everything from self-driving cars to smart appliances in our homes.

"I agree there are serious concerns relating to the Chinese government's influence into network equipment markets," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, who's vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence. "I would look forward to working with the administration on a viable, cost-effective solution to begin addressing those risks."

Cybersecurity for 5G networks had been a top priority for the previous FCC under Tom Wheeler, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama. But the current Republican-led agency believes the FCC should not have authority to ensure wireless providers are building secure networks.

"This correctly diagnoses a real problem. There is a worldwide race to lead in 5G and other nations are poised to win," FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, noted in her statement. "But the remedy proposed here really misses the mark."

What are the security issues?

Wireless communications networks in general aren't very secure by modern standards because they weren't designed to be, according to Travis Le Blanc, who was chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau during the Obama administration. He's also a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, where he serves as an expert in consumer protection, cybersecurity and privacy for telecommunications networks.

This isn't the fault of the wireless carriers that built the networks, LeBlanc said. At the time, no one could have predicted the security threats that would emerge decades later. But retrofitting existing networks to meet current security threats is difficult. This lack of end-to-end security is what makes it so easy for robocallers to use auto-dialers to spoof cellphone numbers and trick people into answering phone calls from numbers they think they know.

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There's a lot of hype over 5G speeds, but less talk about the security around it. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

It's also what makes it possible for third parties, like police investigators, to launch so-called stingray attacks. That's when they set up fake cellphone towers to intercept communications, allowing them to locate a target or listen in on calls.

All of these concerns are magnified with 5G, which is up to 100 times faster than current wireless tech and expected to connect even more devices around us. At its full potential, 5G will mean that information about almost every aspect of our lives could be recorded and stored in the cloud. And that presents huge concerns for privacy advocates, who've been warning that government oversight is needed to ensure companies enabling this new era of technology are keeping this information safe.

"What this memo shows is that cybersecurity isn't just a privacy or civil liberties issue, but a national security and competition issue," Le Blanc added. "Hopefully this will spark a much-needed conversation around privacy and security in our 5G networks." 

Whose job is it anyway?

The previous FCC under Wheeler tried to make sure security would be built into 5G networks. In December 2016, while Democrats were still in control, they asked for comment from the industry on how best to build more-secure 5G networks.

When Republicans took over in 2017, they shut down the inquiry and stopped seeking comment on 5G. The Republican-led FCC also retracted a white paper written by the FCC about reducing cybersecurity threats.

The big problem is if even one carrier decides to skimp on protecting its equipment, that could still jeopardize everyone, according to a white paper written by the FCC's Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau.

"Protective actions taken by one ISP can be undermined by the failure of other ISPs to take similar actions," the paper states. "This weakens the incentive of all ISPs to invest in such protections."

The agency argued that regulations are needed to ensure compliance.

"We now understand how important privacy and security are to the success of networks," LeBlanc said. "So we were trying to build that into 5G from the start. It's always harder to retrofit security later."

But Pai and O'Rielly, who served as commissioners when the FCC was controlled by Democrats, pushed back. They said giving the FCC authority to impose security requirements on new or existing networks was an overreach of FCC authority.

Government takeover goes too far

It's the current FCC's resistance to any regulation on cybersecurity that makes the national security proposal seem so outrageous and out of step with the rest of the Trump administration's agenda.

And that's just one reason policy wonks say it's highly unlikely this plan will ever become reality. There are practical questions, like how the government would fund the work, where it would find the radio airwaves necessary to power the service and whether it could go from zero to a real network in just three years.

Legal experts say sure, it's possible, but it's also highly unlikely.

"Could the federal government seize wireless spectrum and network assets to build a 5G network? The answer is yes," said Trey Hanbury, a partner specializing in telecommunications law at the international law firm Hogan Lovells. "But it would be very complicated and expensive to do."

The wireless carriers, meanwhile, are already well on their way to building their 5G networks, with companies including AT&T and Verizon planning to test their networks this year. What's more, 5G isn't a discrete new network but an evolution of existing technology. And like all network evolutions, carriers will end up using existing infrastructure, equipment and spectrum for their 5G efforts.

"Thanks to multibillion-dollar investments made by American companies, the work to launch 5G service in the US is already well down the road," AT&T said in a statement. "We have no doubt that America will lead the 5G revolution."

The question remains though just how secure those 5G networks will be.

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