Delivering the next generation of connectivity

5G can be an engine of economic growth with security at its heart, says Victor Zhang, vice-president of Huawei

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

The fifth generation of wireless technology, 5G, will spark economic growth around the world by enabling new capabilities in industries such as manufacturing, construction and information communications technology (ICT). By 2035, according to IHS Markit, 5G will produce around $13trn in global economic output.

In the near term, schools, households, hospitals and businesses can all benefit from much faster internet connections. A bit further down the line, the Internet of Things (IoT), particularly its industrial applications, will usher in an era of advanced factory automation, driverless cars, and significant improvements in efficiency powered by big data analytics. 

Critics point out that by letting consumer goods such as refrigerators and cars connect to the internet, the IoT greatly expands the “attack surface” available to malicious actors who would seek to compromise our communications networks. But 5G makes use of 4G’s best defensive technology, while adding new innovations that could make it even more secure. 

In previous generations of mobile technology, the burden of authentication tended to rest with telecom operators. They authenticated users by means of a SIM card, a small chip placed inside users’ smartphones. The SIM card identified users and managed cryptographic keys that verified their identities.

Then the IoT came along. It involves a host of devices and systems connected to the internet, from smart washing machines in homes to the networks operated by governments and corporations. These connections differ in size and power consumption, and in the type and quantity of data they can send and receive. A simple SIM card, issued by a telecom operator, can barely cope with such a diverse range of requirements. 

5G solves that problem by assigning unique identities to each individual device. This eliminates the need for a SIM card, shifting responsibility for authentication from telecom operators to individual service providers. That is good news, because it enables a more flexible approach to security. For example, a hospital will be able to impose strict authentication requirements on a critical piece of equipment, such as a pacemaker in a patient’s body, while a provider that supplied a less critical application could use a less stringent security policy. 

Then there is encryption, an area where 5G also appears to outshine its predecessors. First, 5G data is encrypted using 256-bit encryption, rather than the 128-bit standard used by 4G. Cracking a message protected by 256-bit encryption could take a quantum computer millions of years. 

Second, 5G encryption shields a user’s identity when their smartphone first connects with a base station. When a 4G phone makes this connection, it authenticates the user’s identity, but does not encrypt the information. 4G encrypts calls and texts, but not the user ID. In contrast, 5G encryption makes it impossible to identify or locate the user, from the moment they get on the network. 

Another 5G security enhancement concerns roaming. Previous generations of wireless leave connections exposed when a device roams outside of the network run by a user’s main provider – for example, when the user travels abroad. Left unencrypted, these roaming devices are vulnerable to attack, requiring operators to set up firewalls to keep out intruders.

5G strengthens these connections by using a security protection proxy, or SEPP. Unlike a simple firewall, a SEPP will encrypt all messages sent while a user is roaming or using multiple networks. It will also impose a filter that validates the source of all messages and discard anything suspicious; limit the information about network topology that is visible to outside parties; and hide any confidential information from intermediary networks as it passes between the two core networks. 

5G also reduces the risk of data being modified in transit. In 5G, the “user plane,” the layer on which data is transmitted, “knows” if the data has been altered. If alteration is detected, 5G’s security systems will discard the data and ask the host to resend the message.

How a 5G-enabled society could thrive post-pandemic

Faced with the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, society is experiencing profound and rapid change. But the necessity of recovering from the Covid-induced recession could give rise to a whole series of innovations – many of them enabled by 5G. 

Countries around the world are focused on containing Covid-19. Yet many organisations have already begun looking to the post-pandemic future and thinking about how their operations, products and services will have to change. Technology plays a central role in their planning efforts, especially emerging platforms such as blockchain, facial recognition and virtual and augmented reality. 

For example, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has long aimed to broaden its services to include telemedicine as part of the Digital
First programme. But the use of video consultation in the UK has grown significantly during the pandemic. Hospitals and other traditional healthcare providers have entered the space with offerings of their own – for example, Raffles Connect, which lets patients consult remotely in-house doctors and specialists. 

In addition to healthcare, education will be transformed by the rapid uptake of digital technology brought about by the pandemic. In France, the Centre National d’Enseignement à Distance created a digital platform called Ma Classe à la Maison (My Classroom at Home) to offer classes to students. The platform provides distance learning modules to students and teachers and can be accessed from a phone, tablet or computer.

The security enhancements made to 5G reflect a collective effort by the ICT industry to create a more secure communications environment. Building on experience gained from previous generations of mobile technology, it will be possible to engineer a seamless transition from the security of 4G to the newly enhanced levels of security available in 5G, the next generation of wireless communication.

Free trial CSS