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5G networks could pose a cybersecurity risk. So who’s in charge of making sure they don’t?

Molly Wood Jan 31, 2019
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"If cybersecurity is one of the principal challenges that will define the remainder of the 21st century, then let's have a Manhattan Project to make sure we've got that security," says former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The United States and several other countries have made it clear that they don’t want hardware from Chinese telecom giant Huawei to be part of future fifth-generation wireless networks. They’re worried that Huawei could install backdoors in a 5G network that could let the Chinese government, companies or hackers spy on information crossing that network. But no matter who is building a 5G network, there will be cybersecurity threats. So who’s in charge of making sure that protection against hacking, spying or other cyberthreats is built in from the ground up? Molly Wood talks with Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017. He’s now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says the government should be in charge. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tom Wheeler: When I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and we opened up the first airwaves for 5G, we established a requirement that the standard for 5G would have to deal with cyber and prevent cyber intrusions. Then we opened up what was called the notice of inquiry in which we said to all the best minds in technology, tell us exactly how to achieve that. Let’s get everybody putting input here and we’ll focus that into the 5G standard process. When the Trump FCC came in, they walked away, they extinguished both of those initiatives.

Molly Wood: I can’t believe that the companies who are building out these networks aren’t thinking about security at some level. Are you saying that what we really need is that security strategy as an international standard?

Wheeler: Yeah, that’s it. In no way am I impugning the integrity or intent of the networks. But we are the representatives of the people, the government, overseeing the delivery on what we all agree is necessary.

Wood: What would it look like if there were a coordinated effort to build in security first?

Wheeler: If cybersecurity is one of the principal challenges that will define the remainder of the 21st century, then let’s have a Manhattan Project to make sure we’ve got that security. Let’s just not do it on a, well, this company will go this way or that company will go that way, we’ll have some meetings where we’ll talk about things. There are some significant challenges that ought to be coordinated and should be overseen with the force of government.


And now for some related links:

  • In Facebook’s latest controversy, TechCrunch reports that the company was secretly paying people, targeting teenagers specifically, to install a research app that would basically hoover up every speck of activity from their phones. But what is going to be really interesting to watch from here on is how bad things get between Facebook and Apple. The research app isn’t like a normal app that you’d get from the App Store. It’s part of Apple’s enterprise program for testing apps, and they typically do have more permission on your phone than something you’d download as a normal consumer. The apps being tested aren’t supposed to go to anyone except employees of the company testing them. Facebook’s research app was obviously going to regular people, and that’s the rule it broke. However, Facebook had also built lots of internal apps that do follow the rules, and people inside Facebook use them every day. Yesterday, Apple nuked them all. How? It completely revoked Facebook’s access to its enterprise testing program. So internal betas of Instagram or Messenger aren’t working, or the version of Facebook that employees use inside the company, or any number of other apps that employees use every day or are testing. Business Insider reported that the move sort of crippled the company. Facebook was negotiating to get some access back. But Apple CEO Tim Cook has been getting after Facebook over privacy and data collection. Apple’s Safari browser blocks Facebook’s web trackers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that Cook’s comments about Facebook are essentially baloney. Basically, this cold war just got a lot hotter.
  • If you’re wondering if Facebook is stressing too much about yet another privacy scandal, aside from not being able to get any work done internally, check out its earnings report from yesterday. All its stats are up, it’s making tons of money, the number of users are up, and if you hadn’t been following the news over the last year or so, you’d never know anything was wrong.
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