It’s a technology that promises to revolutionize the telecommunications landscape in the U.S. and around the world, but 5G networks also present one of the most complex, geopolitically sensitive national security threats that the country has seen in decades. Military and intelligence insiders say if Washington and Silicon Valley get it wrong, then the nation could be permanently vulnerable to systematic Chinese espionage.
With governments around the world awarding lucrative contracts to build and maintain the powerful next-generation networks, the questions of national interest, technological efficiency and security are coming to a head.
From North America to New Zealand, officials fear China’s government, working in concert with leading state-tied telecommunications giants such as Huawei, wants to use the coming global implementation of fifth-generation wireless networks as an opportunity to steal information, eavesdrop and unleash crippling cyberattacks on an unprecedented scale.
The White House, Pentagon and American intelligence agencies are deeply concerned about the threat, but some analysts say they may not fully grasp the depth of the problem.
The deep-seated security vulnerabilities associated with 5G are technical and complex, but at their core is a simple fear that Chinese firms could include in their products covert electronic windows to monitor average people, companies and public officials, and that they could use that ability as a 21st-century weapon.
“If you build in a back door to it, it’s game over,” said Chris Meserole, a Brookings Institution fellow who specializes in the impact of technology on U.S. foreign policy.