This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on May 17, 2019.
By: Nate Snyder
The dawning of 5G capabilities will revolutionize our telecommunications and online networks. Data transport speeds will increase to 10 times faster than what they are with 4G. As countries across the globe discover and develop new 5G innovations, so too will terrorist organizations, private actors, and lone offenders. If there is a new technology breakthrough with the public at large, it will no doubt be leveraged by bad actors who will develop and discover their own insidious innovations and exploitations.
While working on counterterrorism efforts at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, I became familiar with how private actors and terrorist organizations exploit any vulnerabilities they can, especially when it comes to online networks and using the internet. These bad actors exploit network vulnerabilities to target and disrupt critical infrastructure, and access and exploit information and people.
It is no secret that the Chinese government has built in capabilities to control the online access of its own citizens. It is also widely known that Huawei is essentially state controlled and influenced. Reports note the company is 99 percent answerable to the Chinese government. Various backdoors, control measures, and surveillance applications have been built directly into the “Great Firewall” of Chinese online infrastructure.
Many of these surreptitious access points and controls are coded into core software and engineered into hardware. While at the Department of Homeland Security, I met with a senior Chinese counterterrorism delegation. I asked them how they address online radicalization to violence. Without hesitation, they replied, “We turn the internet off.” If the Chinese government uses these vulnerabilities to its advantage, you can guarantee that terrorist organizations will also seek to exploit them.
That explains why Prime Minister Theresa May announcing that the United Kingdom will allow Huawei to build noncore 5G functions is a significant problem. Not only is it a British security risk, but it also affects American and allied security. Allowing Huawei onto our collective 5G networks would be like inviting inside a Trojan horse that can be exploited by the Chinese government and other bad actors. The British government has cited compromising vulnerabilities in the Huawei supply chain. Several years ago Vodafone discovered security flaws in Huawei software that, while not fatal, continue to compromise the reputation of the company.
Because of these software and hardware vulnerabilities, likely created with purpose, Huawei and the Chinese 5G supply chain cannot be trusted. The supply chain security is beyond suspicious, and some American allies have already banned the use of Huawei 5G technology. Since the Huawei and Chinese 5G supply chain has more holes than Swiss cheese, it is fair to expect not if but when bad actors will exploit these vulnerabilities.
Some of the greatest deterrents we have against terrorists using online networks and the internet are awareness and intelligence. With Huawei potentially holding a monopoly on the flow and curation of 5G information across the globe, who knows if it will allow adequate access to investigate terrorist threats, emerging trends, threat vectors, and critical data. Huawei will essentially become an all knowing information provider and could handicap the United States and allied intelligence communities. Imagine the embarrassment of relying on Huawei for intelligence to investigate domestic terrorist threats in our own backyard, let alone the potential international ramifications. Even if access is given, the information could be suspicious. Needless to say, bad actors will exploit these blind spots.
The United States should lead the fight for shared principles and ensure competition and interoperability among technology vendors. The Trump administration should focus on building a coalition of our closest allies instead of ridiculing them. This key coalition should push for mandating interoperability among technology providers, ensuring that one company does not become the sole provider for unimagined future technologies like 6G, and tackling risks through diversification and threat dispersion.
The coalition should also demand that Huawei provide the interoperable technology to strengthen noncore technology. Without diversity of secure technology in the 5G ecosystem, the United States leaves itself open to exploitation. Should these demands not be met, the coalition will need to develop new information sharing agreements to mitigate the simple fact that Huawei cannot be a trusted reliable information provider. The United States, along with our closest allies, should lead in the race to develop forward looking and competitive 5G infrastructure technology and policy, or risk falling prey to bad actors. If we are able to get our act together, we still have the opportunity to positively impact 5G development, but we must act now before it is too late. Our national security depends on it.
Nate Snyder is a senior advisor with Cambridge Global Advisors. He was a senior counterterrorism official with the Department of Homeland Security and the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force under President Obama.