Are we ready for China to control global communications?

Are we ready for China to control global communications?
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Are you comfortable with the idea of China controlling the flow of traffic over the internet backbone and providing Beijing’s Communist Party with secret access to global communications?

That threat is very real as companies like Huawei amass an ever-increasing share of the world’s 5G infrastructure. Huawei’s impressive rise over the past 15 years is a direct result of China’s determination to gain global power and influence through economic and technological superiority.

Beijing is poised to gain a powerful new lever with the proliferation of 5G — which promises to unlock the “Internet of Things” and connect everything from home appliances to autonomous vehicles to critical infrastructure to the cloud. While it’s not too late to react to this looming threat, we must act now.

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The United States government has blocked our own telecommunications companies from using Huawei equipment in their core networks. But many of our allies and other nations are becoming increasingly dependent upon Huawei technologies, which are designed from stolen intellectual property and riddled with easily exploitable security vulnerabilities. That means these countries will also be technologically dependent upon China. Make no mistake about it: China leverages Huawei’s growing market share to support China’s national objectives.

Of course, when it comes to the internet, no country is an island, including the U.S.

In order to at least mitigate the risk of this likely global dependence upon Huawei, I propose the following four strategies:

  1. Slow China down — Recently the U.S. government has taken steps to slow China’s global market expansion. The Executive Order on 5G, along with pending and enacted legislation, seeks to implement a range of bans on Huawei equipment. Yet Huawei’s U.S. market share is minimal, and while these approaches may sanitize U.S. infrastructure, they will not significantly impact Huawei’s global sales. The larger opportunity is for U.S. allies to follow our lead and ban Huawei equipment. While embargos may impact Huawei’s bottom line, they carry risks, too. Last year, Commerce Department restrictions compelled Huawei to turn to non-U.S. supply chains for its smartphones. While this may slow Huawei in the short term, the company will likely grow more resilient in the long term through an increasingly China-based supply chain.
  1. Reduce barriers to U.S. 5G deployment — The world follows whichever country leads the deployment of a new technology. For the first time in telecom history, the U.S. is not first. Regulators, federal spectrum incumbents, and industry need to get on the same page about a national strategy for 5G spectrum based on technically rigorous assessments of the economic opportunities and costs of managing interference to existing systems.
  1. Look ahead to 6G — Growing U.S. global telecom market share poses an enormous challenge, as U.S. telecom innovation has slowed significantly in recent years. So how does the U.S. jump-start wireless innovation and build on its strengths in networking infrastructure and internet platforms? I suggest we start by looking ahead to 6G. Although each new generation of mobile technology takes about 20 years to develop, research into 6G is already underway. With the accelerating pace of each generation, 6G commercial deployments could come as early as 2025. Real groundbreaking advances in 6G could come from infusing artificial intelligence (AI) into every aspect of the system. That means the U.S.-China competition for global dominance in 5G, and ultimately 6G, will be inextricably linked to the race underway in AI. But the window is closing for the U.S. to launch such a major “Beyond 5G” initiative, which could require investing $2 billion per year into research, development, standards, testbeds, and commercialization.
  1. Achieve security despite China — The fourth broad class of strategies is to accept the fact that Huawei and other potentially untrusted infrastructure providers will be a major part of the global telecommunications backbone. The U.S. will need ways to maintain security even while untrusted foreign suppliers grab significant global market share. Here are two possibilities: 
  • Invest in secure overlay networks using 5G network slicing technology. A fundamental innovation of 5G is that it virtualizes the entire network. This allows the composition of arbitrary networks to satisfy the needs of specific classes of users. Secure network slices can evaluate the security of the physical hardware over which virtualized infrastructure is implemented and help devices and services assess risk.
  • Zero trust networks (ZTNs) are cloud-based services that have no inherent trust of infrastructure. A ZTN builds on the concept of “never trust, always verify.” Devices must “earn” trust incrementally through attestation, multi-factor authentication, authorization, and network context. That way, a device receives variable access to services based upon the levels of trustworthiness of the device and the infrastructure.

I’m convinced that combining ZTN with network slicing will provide the needed tools to quantify user trust levels, devices, and network infrastructure. This intersection represents a unique opportunity for U.S. investment and commercialization.

Our nation’s 5G strategy must be multi-faceted. We should work to slow the global adoption of Chinese equipment; eliminate barriers to U.S. 5G deployment; invest in U.S. innovation beyond 5G technologies; and develop technologies that can isolate critical services to keep American networks secure.

We must take these steps now — before we become even more dependent upon China than we already are.

Charles Clancy is vice president for Intelligence Programs in MITRE's Center for Programs and Technology and author of the white paper “5G and the Front Lines of the U.S.-China Great Power Competition.”