If you’re interested in mobile tech, you’ve no doubt heard about 5G. After almost a decade of development, this new generation of mobile technology is finally starting to roll out to the masses.

However, when it comes to finding information about this new technology and what it means for everyone, it’s easy to find yourself met with a lot of confusing information – particularly with regard to the privacy and security concerns of 5G.

To make 5G clear-cut and easy to understand, we’ve put together this guide on 5G. Read on to find out how we got to this point, what 5G will bring to the table, and just why people are so worried about its privacy implications.

The predecessors: 2G, 3G, 4G

To understand all the implications of 5G – the 5th Generation – you need to know the generations that came before it and what they meant to the development of mobile communications technology.

At its inception in the 1970s, mobile communication was restricted to phone calls only. At the time, this technology was known as AMPS, TACS, and later NMT, but it’s now commonly referred to as 1G. This generation was the first to bring mobility to analogue voice calling, but as the potential of mobile communications grew, so did the need for new technology.

And so came the 2G era of the 1990s, which changed the game with its new GSM technology. Using efficient digital transmissions instead of analogue, GSM introduced a new type of mobile signal: the data signal. This technology gave birth to the beginning of SMS (text messaging), which has since outstripped voice calling as the most popular method of mobile communication.

But while SMS was a huge new development, 2G brought about something even more notable: mobile internet. In the late 1990s, the first internet-enabled phones hit the market. They were first powered by WAP technology, then by GPRS and EDGE (known as 2.5G). On top of that, 2G signals consumed less power than 1G signals, prolonging battery life. All these changes marked the beginning of mobile phones becoming an integral part of the daily life of everyday people.

However, while 2G was a pioneering development, the internet was very slow and often difficult to navigate. As a result, 3G technology was introduced in the early 2000s, bringing speeds up to 4 times faster than its predecessor. It also introduced the possibility for video calling.

Around the same time, touch screen phones began gaining popularity. With mobile internet faster and easier to use than ever before, it quickly became the new normal. Then came the even more powerful 3.5G, which turned the focus of phone usage to powerful apps encompassing everything from social media to online gaming.

Of course, the need for speed kept increasing, and 4G technology was introduced to meet those requirements. This is the standard communication technology used in most modern mobile phones today. The biggest core improvement 4G (and later 4.5G) brought was a much faster transmission rate. While 3G had a maximum download speed around 5 to 10 Mbps, 4G offers theoretical maximums of 150 to 300Mbps. This has made HD video streaming and calling virtually lag free, and the increase in efficiency means that even businesspeople can use their phones for work on the go just like they would with a computer on a wi-fi network.

While 4G speeds are still sufficient for many mobile users, there are other developments taking place in society that require even more capable and efficient mobile internet. Now, 10 years after the first deployment of 4G, the new talk of the town is 5G.

The successor: 5G

5G has been in the works for almost a decade and will soon start its first phase of mass deployment. But what is 5G, and how does it differ from 4G?

To put it simply, the advent of 5G will change life as we know it. Each generation of mobile technology had its own goal, from the new data transmissions of 2G to the speed improvements of 4G. The goal of 5G is to facilitate the Internet of Things (IoT) – the connectivity of everyday items to the internet.

Mobile internet is fast expanding beyond smartphones, with everything from smart light bulbs to smart toys to self-driving cars. But in order to accommodate this universal connectivity, mobile internet needs to get faster, more powerful, and more efficient.

5G achieves all this and more, bringing a number of new performance standards to the table:

  • Better speeds: At present, 5G data rates have reached records of up to 15 Gbps. The eventual aim is at least 20 Gbps for downloads and 10 Gbps for uploads – 20+ times faster than the fastest 4G networks.
  • Better latency: 5G signal delay is being reduced to 1-4 milliseconds, a far cry from the 100 milliseconds of 3G. This is crucial for the response times of self-driving cars among other new technologies.
  • Better capacity: To ensure all devices can be internet enabled, 5G capacity will allow for at least 1 million connected devices per square kilometre.
  • Better energy usage: 5G signals are more energy efficient than before, and they drop into low energy mode when they’re not being used
  • Better mobility: Allowing for up steady access at up to 500km/h, 5G will allow self-driving cars to become commonplace.

These improvements are made possible by the variety of new technologies that have been developed specifically for 5G, including millimetre-wave communications.

All in all, 5G sounds like an incredible and much needed addition to mobile internet technology. However, nothing is perfect. Even 5G has its issues, and one of the most concerning problems is privacy.

The privacy concerns

One of the aims during the development of 5G was to improve privacy and security, protecting against snooping and attacks. However, as 5G comes closer to a wide scale roll out, multiple privacy concerns are being uncovered. In particular, there are two main areas that need to be addressed: privacy issues relating to inherent flaws in the technology, and privacy issues relating to companies involved in its development.

Concern #1: the key technology

The first issue that sparks privacy concerns relates to the technology used to make 5G possible – specifically the use of millimetre waves.

The radio wave frequencies range on a spectrum from 3 kHz to 300 GHz. Lower-band frequencies offer great coverage because they can travel long distances, but they’ve become overcrowded. As a result, developers have turned to the less crowded high-band millimetre waves (around 30 GHz and above) for 5G. While these frequencies offer exceptional speed, they cannot travel anywhere near as far as the low-band spectrum. This is where the privacy issue begins.

As you may already know, when your phone is on and connected, it regularly “pings” the nearby cell towers which transmit all data signals. This allows your location to be tracked, but since cell towers are spaced around 500m to 3km apart, you can’t be tracked with pinpoint accuracy. However, since millimetre waves can’t travel as far as those used in previous generations, far more cell towers will be needed to support 5G.

With cell towers clustered closer together than ever – including in popular locations like shopping centres and hotels – 5G will allow a user’s location to be pinpointed far more precisely.

Ordinarily, an idle phone only pings nearby towers at set increments to preserve battery life, which means users can’t be tracked in real time. However, researchers have found that the paging protocol used to let you know you have an incoming call can be exploited to make your phone ping at any time.

Known as the Torpedo exploit, this flaw lets attackers initiate a rapid-fire “torpedo” of phone calls to your device, allowing them to pick up patterns that reveal your location at that precise point in time. What’s worse is that the same exploit can be used as a foundation to block messages and calls, spoof messages, and even monitor your calls and texts. 4G and 5G both allegedly have built-in protections against this type of attack, but these protections have been found to fall short.

These attacks are very difficult and time consuming to execute, so the vast majority of people are at very low risk. However, if you’re a high-profile individual or even just someone with a lot of enemies, you’re at greater risk of becoming a target.

Even more alarmingly, late last year the 5 Eyes announced that they could force the tech industry into building ways for them to snoop into technologies like 5G. The 5 Eyes is a security alliance between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand which follows a treaty allowing them to share intelligence information with each other.

If you’re transmitting sensitive information, there is every chance that this intrusive alliance (along with the larger 9 and 14 Eyes) could use such exploits to uncover and share information about you. This risk could also apply to VPN users if their VPN is based in the 5/9/14 Eyes. If the government can access your traffic and data, using a VPN no longer offers the same benefits.

In short, this issue with 5G technology is a big privacy concern for those who are determined to stay hidden from hackers, rivals, and the government.

Concern #2: the key players

Since the new technologies used in 5G will require new phones and equipment that can handle them, many of the key players behind 5G are telecoms companies. There are only a few working on 5G devices right now: Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, DoCoMo, ZTE, and Huawei.

When it comes to privacy and security concerns, the most notable company on the list is Huawei.

Chinese giant Huawei is the second largest smartphone company in the world, responsible for $100 billion in telecoms equipment trade. In the past, Huawei has been one of the biggest component providers to mobile companies across the western nations. However, the US has recently banned the use of Huawei equipment and called on allied nations to follow suit.

But why? Well, it all boils down to concerns about Huawei’s trustworthiness. The US is concerned that Huawei could be building a “backdoor” into 5G equipment which would give them unrestricted access to the unencrypted traffic and metadata of people all over the world. These worries stem from Huawei’s obligation to the Chinese government as well as the recent arrest and charge of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei.

Meng was arrested in Canada on December 1, 2018 on fraud allegations and later charged for the same act, with the US calling for her extradition. On top of that, on January 11, 2019 a Huawei employee was arrested in Poland on allegations of espionage. Since it’s clear that foul play is at work at Huawei, it’s no surprise that some countries want them out of the 5G race.

One interesting point is how the UK has responded to this potential threat. While New Zealand and Australia have followed the direction of the US and blocked the use of Huawei components, the UK has taken a different stance. A representative stated that the risk Huawei poses is manageable, and while mobile operators are advised to keep Huawei out of the core of their 5G networks, it’s okay to use the equipment at phone masts.

Many believe this stance is related to lower Huawei costs as well as international trading needs in the wake of Brexit. What’s most interesting is that the opposition between the US and the UK on this issue has the potential to threaten the 5 Eyes alliance. Partner countries may not cooperate with the UK in the future if they feel their security is compromised by China.

Bottom line

In short, 5G will represent a revolutionary generation of mobile technology. It’s potential is what makes the privacy concerns of such great interest, since 5G can’t simply be scrapped due to security issues. Ultimately, despite the flaws and worries over who is involved, 5G will do great things for society. And, although it brings privacy concerns, it also offers new security benefits too.

Of course, it is important that those in charge of development and standards for 5G do as much as they can to resolve the flaws behind it. That’s why it’s important to stay updated on what’s going on in the world of 5G: the more pressure development players receive from the public, the faster they’ll fix the problems.