The dynamic world of 5G connectivity is coming to consumers and industry alike. Specific to construction, 5G will mean more robotic and semi-autonomous equipment, increased utilization of drone technology for mapping and digital imaging, the inter-connectivity between all project players from head office and suppliers to workers on site, and much more.
However, be careful what you wish for. 5G may offer superlative high speeds versus 4G and the potential to connect every device imaginable, but security experts say 5G will also increase the number of access points for cyber hackers by several hundred-fold.
One reason is the nature of 5G architecture itself. “The [5G] network has moved away from centralized, hardware-based switching to distributed, software-defined digital routing,” write Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow Tom Wheeler, and David Simpson, former Chief of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC. In a research paper published by Brookings, Wheeler and Simpson explain that the management of 5G solely through software exposes networks to increased vulnerabilities that encryption alone cannot resolve. “Previous networks were hub-and-spoke designs in which everything came to hardware choke points where cyber hygiene could be practiced. In the 5G software defined network, however, that activity is pushed outward to a web of digital routers throughout the network, thus denying the potential for chokepoint inspection and control.”
Secondly, 5G signals are extremely short-ranged and are easily blocked by walls, foliage and even people due to their high frequency. Adequate coverage will require multiple antennas throughout urban areas — on public streets and inside buildings, for example. Wheeler and Simpson foresee these low-cost, short range, small-cell antennas as new hard targets for hackers.
Thirdly, there is the sheer explosion of devices expected to use 5G. Almost everything will have connectivity in the near future, even the office coffee machine, thus creating a huge increase in interconnections within a network. Each connected device offers a potential gateway for hackers. “The whole attack surface has really multiplied,” Patrick Rhude, head of product management security for Nokia, recently told a 5G conference.
What should members of the construction industry do to protect themselves?
First, develop a new cyber-awareness culture. Increased attention must be given to individualized internal security measures that go beyond current best internet practices. In construction, for example, there is a security domino effect that must be addressed, running from company employees through material suppliers down to component manufacturers.
Companies must consider the security of all devices used anywhere within their own 5G networks, and to the security measures incorporated both into basic corporate network software and those offered through 5G service providers. After all, individual personal devices, each with their own with 5G connectivity, will be feeding into corporate 5G networks. Product labelling and 5G regulatory standards issued by government may be the way to protect everyone.
“None of this suggests that we suspend the march to the benefits of 5G,” say Wheeler and Simpson. “It does, however, suggest that our status quo approach to 5G should be challenged.”
At this point, debate continues concerning which of the world’s leading 5G infrastructure manufacturers will be allowed to supply equipment to Canada’s 5G network — it’s a topical national security issue, tightly bound to international politics and trade.
Regardless of what decisions are made, the question remains, “Who will pay for all this?” The costs associated with building out the country’s 5G infrastructure will be considerable. Will government, building owners, or service carriers share the bill through some form of partnership?
What’s more, should government or the 5G service providers pay for the required security measures? “Speedy implementation is important, but security is paramount,” say Wheeler and Simpson. “To answer that overriding question requires new efforts by both business and government and a new relationship between the two. Good faith efforts are insufficient.”
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.