Matthew Meacham unravels the mysteries – and benefits – of the fast-evolving 5G revolution headed our way
Sometimes you can learn more than you expected from a simple Google search – something I experienced just the other day in fact.
Amidst the usual chatter about lockdown life, my mum, prompted by hearing something on the news, asked me about what 5G technology actually is and does. Rather than delve into its technical complexities there and then, I said I’d send over some links – hence the pivot to Google. The results were surprising.
Sure, there was no shortage of options – nigh on 777 million in fact – a testament, clearly, to 5G’s increasing global prevalence. But I couldn’t help but notice some of the questions that also materialised – in particular “Will 5G be dangerous?”
Of course, there is often some nervousness about the deployment of a new technology – particularly when social media can help conspiracy theories take rapid root. But it does seem that 5G’s potential benefits have got lost somehow. And this is disappointing – not least as its advantages are many.
What it all about?
“5G” stands for the fifth generation technology standard for mobile networks. It has been designed to cater for the very large growth in data and connectivity of today’s society, including advances such as the Internet of Things (IoT) which connects literally billions of devices. Having begun its deployment in 2019, it is seen as the successor to the 4G networks which currently connect most mobile phones around the world.
So that’s the background – what about the benefits? Well, as well as achieving faster connections and greater capacity (no need for a long wait to download a film any more), 5G also delivers a faster response time referred to as “latency”. This refers to the time taken for devices to respond to each other over the wireless network.
Thanks to 5G, this time has been reduced to one millisecond – which opens up a whole range of new machine to machine communications; as a result, advances including autonomous driving, remote medical care and industrial robotics are better placed to move from theory to widespread reality.
Private – no entry?
Privacy, too, is also something that is set to be strengthened in a 5G compliant world. That’s because 5G enforces the encryption and concealment of all persistent user equipment identifiers over the radio interface – making it theoretically impossible for nefarious actors to track and trace 5G handsets from the air interface alone.
What 5G also does better than its predecessor technologies is protect the anonymity of the end user within the core network. This is achieved by enforcing encryption within the 5G core; network administrators can no longer peer into traffic as it passes through network infrastructure.
And 5G also enables operators to divide the system into numerous virtual networks or network slices that can be managed and customised separately. This means that a mobile network operator will no longer have access to subscriber data of the virtual operators it hosts as each of them will have their own protections for their own subscribers.
Admittedly, some continue to have to their doubts about 5G’s privacy implications, particularly due to the large volume of small cells that will be used in metropolitan cities which arguably give a network operator enhanced visibility of a device’s location. But the counter to this is that the ability for a communication service provider to accurately locate a device exists today within a 4G network through use of the radio measurement reports, and these techniques give greater location accuracy than an approximation based on the coverage area of the smallest 5G cell.
The concern in reality is more broadly about the proliferation of connected devices – whether wearable, embedded, machine to machine, Industrial IoT or just normal consumer grade smart devices – we are all going to generate lots more data points as technology leverages 5G.
Understanding the risk
The bigger and more credible risk to privacy is the growing encroachment of corporations into our every waking and sleeping movement, every electronic transaction, all our conversations and photos and messages. It true that this is happening with the enablement of 5G but the masters of these vast datasets sit outside the telecoms network and are owned by organisations for which we can’t vote or control.
This privacy encroachment can be small and sometimes beneficial, targeted advertising or customised pricing of goods and services tailored to your lifestyle choices. Some of these could be seen as socially responsible ‘nudging’ such as cheaper health insurance for those who exercise, but others may have more sinister intentions.
Either way, though, this has nothing really to do with 5G. Access to this information will be at the application provider level, with the 5G network providing transport level encryption.
That’s not to say, though, that 5G’s enhanced security protections don’t act as a double-edged sword. While user identities and locations are protected through it’s enhanced radio encryption the same protections prevent law enforcement from using existing techniques for radio based subject of interest identification or geolocation, this is something that BAE Systems is helping address with our DataBridge Lawful Intercept product.
Such challenges are perhaps inevitable in any new technology, particularly one that has the revolutionary potential of 5G. They also mean that the debate around its use is not going to go away any time soon.
Its advantages, though, certainly outweigh any risks and we all come to be relying on it before too long – for simple Google searches and much else, my mum included.
About the author
Matthew Meacham is a Product Manager – DataBridge Lawful Intercept, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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