Security experts and privacy advocates are hopeful the rollout of the new 5G wireless network could eliminate a glaring surveillance vulnerability that allows spying on nearby phone calls.
Lawmakers have been pressing the Trump administration to crack down on technology known as "Stingrays," after it was revealed they were found near federal buildings in Washington D.C. earlier this year.
The devices, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, allow for unauthorized cellphone surveillance. They are often used by law enforcement to track suspects in cases. But the devices have vexed federal officials who until recently had no way of tracking them, sparking worries about their use by foreign powers.
Stingrays exploit cell towers that are the backbone of the current 4G network. Experts say the structure of 5G, short for fifth-generation networks, could block the way the devices operate, resolving the thorny surveillance problem.
5G networks would be less reliant on those towers and also would require new security standards for communications. The new network would be built using smaller cells, which are about the size of refrigerators and located every few blocks.
“The use of next-generation 5G technologies, with stronger security options, promises to lower the threat from unauthorized rogue base stations, so called “stingray” devices,” Charles Romine, head of the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told The Hill in an email.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but we expect innovations like 5G to make a real difference in many aspects of telecommunications security.”
Romine also testified before Congress earlier this year on improved security under 5G, telling lawmakers the standards for future networks “will have the potential to eliminate the threat of today's passive sniffing IMSI catchers.”
Fears over surveillance intensified earlier this year after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledged it had detected unauthorized stingrays in the D.C. area, The revelation prompted an outcry from privacy hawks on and off Capitol Hill.
Christopher Krebs, a top cyber official at DHS, told Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbyists turn to infrastructure law's implementation Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Overnight Energy & Environment — House passes giant climate, social policy bill MORE (D-Ore.) in a letter at the time that the agency lacked the ability to track the use of the spying devices.
DHS also would not disclose how many stingrays were found, leaving it unclear how prevalent the cellphone spying devices were within the Beltway.
But the fix, experts now say, could be in the new 5G wireless network standard, which the government and the private sector are already in the process of rolling out in American cities.
Lucca Hirschi and Ralf Sasse, two authors of a recent paper on 5G surveillance risks, told The Hill that their analysis of new standards for 5G found that the guidelines will limit the impact of existing stingrays.
According to the study, the standards required for the new network will block many current versions of the listening devices. Those standards were approved in June by 3GPP, a global group of telecommunications firms.
But the fix won't not cover all stingrays, Hirschi and Sasse told The Hill in an interview. The standards would block so-called passive devices, which just pick up communications, but different kinds of active tracking devices, which can force phones to disconnect from their networks, could still get through in 5G.
“It’s harder to do, but you can still do in 5G,” Hirschi said.
But Sasse noted that the “attack surface" would be "reduced significantly,” a big step forward in security.
Telecom giants have been touting the benefits of 5G, which they say will improve internet connectivity, deal with the massive growth of internet connected devices, and spark new innovations. And they have also been pointing to beefed up security as a prominent feature.
But others are more cautious about claims that 5G will be a clear improvement in security.
Lawmakers and federal officials have raised concerns about other security threats posed by the network, including risks to the supply chain and potential data breaches and privacy violations.
“I want to stress how important security will be in all of the work that we’re doing,” David Redl, the assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department, said during a speech on 5G earlier this month.
“President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE has made clear that securing 5G networks is a prominent national security issue. As a government, we are vitally interested in standards-setting and other activities that are designed to ensure the integrity of U.S. wireless networks.”
Nick Jones, chief technology officer for British tech company Evolved Intelligence, said that while 5G may mitigate the threat of surveillance for those close to the network, 5G would still be vulnerable. Experts in particular are concerned about hackers breaching the networks remotely.
“It's not going to come through some guy sitting in a car outside trying to get into the radio, it's going to be a guy in another country who's got access to that core network,” Jones said.
For now, those new security risks and rewards are still years away for most Americans.
It is unclear when 5G will be rolled out nationwide. The process would require large investments and a sizeable workforce to deploy the necessary new hardware.
There are also obstacles getting local authorities on board, with companies needing to negotiate deals with cities and towns.
That slow rollout means that for a period of time, multiple networks may be active at once. And that means devices built for 5G may have to connect to earlier networks like 4G, exposing those devices to vulnerabilities they weren’t designed to combat, experts told The Hill.
For industry, that means switching over as quickly as possible to the new standard.
“A small cell can be installed in an hour or two,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, head of the wireless industry association CTIA, about launching 5G.
"But it can take one to two years to get local government approval because we treat everything like a 200-foot tower."