General Studies Paper 3

Context: The ultra-fast speed of 5G indeed holds the promise of revolutionary changes in communication and Internet consumption. The country is estimated to have over 150 million 5G users by the end of 2024 – a tiny fraction of the current 1.2 billion mobile phone users. This number will expand significantly once the 5G network is progressively deployed in tier-2 and tier-3 geographies. Along with the spread, the cybersecurity challenges in the 5G age will also increase many folds.

What is 5G Technology?

  • Every few years, a new generation of mobile communications takes shape and is described as 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G networks, and so on. Each of these new generations brings higher data transfer speeds and lower latency rates.
  • The high speed and low latency of 5G will enable the connected devices to communicate in real-time, offering better and more reliable performance. This will benefit household purposes (such as lol-enabled smart homes) and the industrial sector (for example, smart factories and automated manufacturing). According to one study, by 2035, 5G will enable USD 13.2 trillion of global economic output and support 22.3 million jobs.
  • 5G will subsequently impact edtech, autonomous and robotic systems, telemedicine and precision agriculture.

What are the geopolitical fights associated with 5G technology?

  • Commercial motives: Leading tech-powered nations have strived to attain the ‘first mover’ advantage in 5G technology. So, major world telecom leaders may have taken the lead in developing 5G technology. For instance, Chinese telecom companies have been aggressively penetrating new markets by commercialising the technology and offering it at cheaper rates.
  • The Chinese threat: There are apprehensions that China might weaponise 5G technology by coercing the Chinese telecom companies to share their consumer data with the government or even force them to shut down 5G networks in times of geopolitical tumult.
  • Various instances and allegations of Chinese telecom companies engaging in cyber espionage in many countries have only reinforced these concerns. For example, the Australian government report on Papua New Guinea’s National Cyber Security Centre built by China said that the project had multiple cybersecurity issues, which exposed confidential government data.
  • The US counter on China: The United States has spearheaded a campaign to counter the Chinese telecom companies’ dominance in the 5G market. For instance, the US government has designated Huawei and ZTE as national security threats and also banned the sale and import of new communications equipment from five other Chinese companies. Further, the US has also persuaded its allies not to use Chinese equipment in their domestic 5G networks.
  • Democratic states and authoritarian regime fight: There have been efforts to bring together like-minded and leading democratic states to jointly tackle the tech challenge posed by authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. For example,
  • The idea of D-10: The former UK Prime Minister floated the idea of D-10, a coalition of ten democracies, to create an alternative supply chain for 5G and other emerging technologies.
  • The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad has pledged to advance interoperability and security and work on 5G supplier diversification and Open RAN technology.


On the other hand, authoritarian regimes are pursuing emerging technologies beyond 5G.

What are the potential cybersecurity challenges in the 5G?

  • With 5G there will be an increased tendency among threat actors to target critical national infrastructure.
  • 5G will play in a crucial role in national development and economic growth. So, it can undoubtedly be regarded as a critical infrastructure. Hence, 5G communication networks will represent a valuable target for cyberattacks, including sabotage.
  • Threat actors will exploit several vulnerabilities of the 5G network and ecosystem. Such as,
  1. Due to the complexity of technology, there are many moving parts in the 5G ecosystem. This raises uncertainty about the resilience of each of those parts. For instance. If some systems in the network are not fully patched, they can potentially act as the weakest link in cyber defence.
  2. Due to the higher speeds and enhanced capacity, 5G requires more access points and network edges, where the local network or device connects with the internet. This shifts much of the core network functions closer to the end user, making it challenging to enforce the requisite security compliance and ensure trusted third-party vendors.
  3. There are mixed types of networks — 5G systems with legacy systems such as 4G. This also exposes the 5G network to the vulnerabilities of previous-generation networks.
  4. Unlike 4G, 5G have a much smaller area of coverage. Hence, they require several smaller antennas and base’ stations. This can allow precise location tracking of mobile phone or internet users inside and outside, thereby increasing privacy risks.
  5. The 5G network will bring about a wider proliferation of loT-enabled devices. According to one estimate, by 2025, there will be approximately 27 billion connected loT devices. This magnifies the threat canvas, as these devices will offer new malware and botnet distribution vectors.
  • These will bring increased avenues for attacks such as Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks or Man-in-the-Middle attacks. For example, in 2016, the Mirai botnet exploited unsecured loT devices’ vulnerabilities to disrupt the functioning of thousands of routers, security cameras, and digital video recorders.
  1. 5G inherits the vulnerability from previous generation protocols, i.e., threat actors can get hold of the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI)
  • By seizing the IMSI, threat actors can intercept mobile traffic in a defined area to monitor an individual user’s activity, including tracking location and intercepting calls.

What needs to be done to limit the cybersecurity challenges in the 5G?

  • 5G will require an enhanced focus on the security of the connections, devices, and applications.
  • Explore next-generation technologies: Leading tech companies and global partnerships have already started exploring next-generation technologies. For instance, The Quad countries have announced plans to collaborate on space-based 6G to ensure that security-by-design and best cybersecurity practices are incorporated as the technology takes shape.

China is also formulating plans to advance research and innovation in 6G technologies.

  • Formulate a cyber resilience plan: 5G technology and network are not secure by design. So, countries adopting 5G, including India, must have a dedicated cyber resilience plan in place.
  • Constant update of policies: the cyber and information-security policies of the 5G network ecosystem must adopt adequate security protocols. This will need constant updating and upgrading since threat actors continue exploiting emerging vulnerabilities.
  • Enhance awareness of end-user: End users’ cyber hygiene — their understanding of safe practices in cyberspace — can help them better tackle the threats and protect themselves. So, the government should take steps to increase awareness among end user.
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