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Justice Official Explains Why Law Enforcement is Worried about 5G

As the government works to deploy next generation networking technology, policy discussions highlight rifts between agency stakeholders.

The advent of fifth generation networking architecture is going to make it a lot harder for law enforcement to serve and process wiretapping warrants, a senior Justice official said, also expressing concern about the main U.S. policy approach for competing with China in the space.

Beyond faster connections with reduced latency, 5G is expected to greatly enable machine to machine communication, making for a more distributed system of connectivity. This promises huge potential for economic advancement, but also to exacerbate challenges the FBI and other law enforcement entities experience trying to overcome encrypted communication between devices. 

“The big challenge as 5G gets increasingly deployed across the country,” said Associate Deputy Attorney General Sujit Raman, is “let’s say you serve a search warrant or a wiretap order. Where physically is that going to happen? Because right now, you just send the wiretap order to Verizon or T-Mobile or whoever. They’ve got a centralized server, they serve it, they create an interface and they produce the data. If there isn’t that centralized architecture going forward, it’s an engineering question, how do you actually make that happen?”

Raman said his colleagues in the investigative agencies are working with all the major U.S. telecommunications companies to answer that question.

He spoke at an event the Internet Governance Forum hosted Wednesday which also featured Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. 

On Thursday, the FCC will begin an auction of prized mid-band spectrum as part of its 5G Fast initiative. 

Speed is an obvious consideration in the race to 5G, but officials are also wary of how the technology could be exploited by cyber criminals, including nation-state actors. China, in particular, could potentially disrupt critical infrastructure working through telecommunications giant Huawei or other entities within the supply chain, they say. But Krebs said compromises to confidentiality are not as much of a concern since they can be mitigated with the use of encryption.

“When you think about [5G] from the cybersecurity side, whether it’s a confidentiality attack, an integrity attack, an availability attack, it’s less on the confidentiality side—you can encrypt data for those purposes to protect against those attacks,” he said. “For us it’s more on the availability side. Is the signal there, when you need it, is it performing as you need it.”

For this reason, Krebs, Pai and others in government and the private sector have expressed support for developing open-interface standards for 5G, so that various components of the network can work together, instead of all having to be supplied by a single vendor, such as Huawei.

“For us it’s been a significant focus on how you get trusted vendors into the supply chain, how you get a vibrant global ecosystem that will support a diversity of vendors that again, are trusted,” Krebs said.  

Legislation supporting the effort, which would create a fund for research and development for the open architecture, was included in the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act via the Intelligence Authorization Act.  

But Raman, like Attorney General William Barr, is concerned about the viability of that approach, as Huawei and China push forward in securing global market share for 5G technology.

“Where I sit, one of the really tough questions here is timing,” he said. “One of the challenges [with the interoperability concept] is what is the time frame here? Because obviously Huawei is ...not focused on interoperability. They’re out there trying to sell their products today and they’re very aggressive about it.”

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