The deployment of advanced technologies is the newest battlefield between open societies and authoritarian regimes. This applies to technological innovations from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, but it is most visible in the rollout of fifth-generation networks that will underpin the next generation of connected devices.
Advanced mobile phones, connected Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, and automated vehicles will all rely on the high speed of 5G networks.
The competition to set standards for this technology is heating up. As IoT vastly broadens the need for cybersecurity, it is also a key national security issue, as 5G networks will be the foundation for the data flows of the future.
Competition in geopolitics and technology, or Geotech, is the contest that will shape the 21st century. The explosive growth of Chinese technology company Huawei Technologies, its growing share of the 5G equipment marketplace, and the pushback by U.S. and allied governments, is the latest bout in this competition.
Unlike the Cold War with the Soviet Union, where the West dominated advanced technology, China is closing the innovation gap, using technology transfer and intellectual property theft to bolster state champions, and exporting its technological influence around the world.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order to secure U.S. wireless networks and the planned ban on Huawei purchases of U.S. technology demonstrate how pressing this security challenge is. Yet, the United States cannot go it alone in securing these networks. It needs allies, including in Asia.
The interdependence of globalized economies presents a problem that did not exist in the Cold War, but it is still incumbent upon the United States and its allies to work together to ensure that advances in technology, and the setting of standards, are not defined by China’s authoritarian, mercantilist model.
The risk posed by authoritarian leadership in this technology is clear. Huawei and other Chinese technology companies are compelled by the cybersecurity, national security, and intelligence laws of China to share any information the state demands.
As ever-greater quantities of valuable data flow through 5G networks, Chinese hardware could provide a backdoor for China to access and manipulate these networks. China’s track record of cyber espionage and intellectual property theft speaks for itself. Changes in technology are unlikely to cause a change in behavior. Chinese dominance in 5G technology, hardware, and data standards will threaten the security and sovereignty of those nations that build their next technology foundation on them.
China’s policies — ranging from its legal structure to the Made in China 2025 industrial prioritization — make clear its intentions. In contrast, the United States and its allies have clear oversight structures and independent judicial review of their foreign intelligence gathering. Furthermore, western intelligence activities are focused on national security aims, not intellectual property theft or industrial espionage.
For open societies to meet the challenge of authoritarian-driven challenge, there must be a common approach for 5G hardware, standards, and data governance. Already, there is significant action in terms of limiting or banning Huawei technology, but for many governments, the low-cost of Huawei equipment is a tempting opportunity.
For an increasing number of illiberal democracies, there is also appeal in adopting aspects of China’s high-tech surveillance state. However, this cheap technology — made affordable by state subsidy and industrial espionage — is often combined with concessionary agreements that make a 5G network beholden to maintenance and software updates from Chinese vendors.
Beyond this, the United States and its allies must make it clear that there are other costs to be considered when adopting Chinese 5G equipment, with consequences for economic exchange and security cooperation.
There may be further limitations placed on their purchase of other U.S. and allied technologies, and on their connectivity with U.S.-or-allied-based networks. Also, if nations adopt Huawei equipment in their networks, they must consider what restrictions they will face in terms of military, intelligence, and law enforcement information-sharing and cooperation.
The United States and allied partners should harmonize 5G standards to ensure a rapid and secure rollout of inter-compatible 5G technology.
This will require coordination of trusted hardware manufacturers and network operators to ensure common security standards and network protection protocols. Finally, secure, open architectures and competitive procurement can ensure that no country’s vital wireless infrastructure is beholden to one nation or one supplier.
While more expensive western providers may result in higher costs for network equipment, a pure cost-based approach does not consider the longer-term price of adopting Huawei equipment. While it may be cheaper, countries must consider the possible expense if they lose access to U.S. and allied networks and technologies, as well as the loss of sovereignty and security involved if they are beholden to Chinese suppliers.
Already, the United States Japan, and other partners have taken important steps to address 5G security — with limits on Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese suppliers that could pose security risks.
The Japanese government’s approach to addressing hardware security during spectrum allocation is a model for policymakers around the world to consider. By attaching security conditions to the spectrum allocated to network providers, Tokyo has set a clear security standard and a strong incentive to providers to comply. Australia has declared that it will not use 5G equipment from suppliers subject to extra-judicial influence — not naming Huawei or ZTE by name, but clearly aiming at China.
Finally, as 5G networks will connect new data sources, a shared approach to data governance is necessary to unlock the value of this data while protecting users’ privacy. U.S. policymakers should look at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed policy called “Data Free Flow with Trust” as a starting point for harmonizing open societies’ data governance standards.
A common approach to 5G networks and broader Geotech-related issues is vital for open societies to compete with authoritarian regimes. Technology, like any other tool, can be used for good or for ill. As our reliance on connected hardware grows, 5G technology will be an essential resource for nearly every sector of industry and society. For open societies to ensure that 5G and other key technologies reflect their values, they must work together to ensure that our technological future is not ceded to those with non-democratic aims.
Glenn Nye is a former Member of the U.S. House of Representatives and President of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Frank Cilluffo is the Director of the McCrary Institute for Cyber & Critical Infrastructure Security at Auburn University
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