Private sector player urges DOD to screen 5G technology for cybersecurity

Weiquan Lin/Getty Images

The Pentagon is offering cash prizes for hardware or software ideas to make various components of fifth-generation networking technology interoperable across various manufacturers.

As the Defense Department continues to explore the possibilities of fifth-generation networking technology, a key industry participant is encouraging officials to more proactively consider cybersecurity concerns, particularly those associated with foreign supply chains.

“I think it's really important that we thoroughly vet our supply chain, as we're talking about what hardware and software is needed to develop these applications,” said Callie Field, President of T-Mobile’s Business Group. “In working with the US government … T-Mobile has one of the strongest [National Security Agency] agreements that's out there, but it's important for folks like the DOD to be asking like, ‘hey, what, what do you have in terms of your [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] agreements? What's going on in your NSA agreement?’”

Field spoke Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on “Commercial Wireless Networks and National Defense: Emerging Requirements, Challenges and Opportunities.” 

Field’s comments come just as the Defense Department launches a competition to encourage the development of technology that would allow various network components to work together regardless of their manufacturer. 

“Today, most wireless networks are operated by mobile network operators and composed of many vendor-specific proprietary solutions,” DOD said Wednesday, announcing the challenge for which they’re giving away up to $3 million. “Each discrete element typically contains custom, closed-source software and hardware. This industry dynamic increases costs, slows innovation and reduces competition, often making security issues difficult to detect and resolve.”

The move follows a push by the Open Radio Access Network Alliance, an industry group led by mobile operators and other providers of network equipment, with notable exceptions. Chinese 5G technology provider Huawei, for example, is not a member. The company, like former Attorney General William Barr—who referred to the O-RAN-Alliance idea as “pie in the sky”—has suggested the interoperability objective is not technically workable.     

Keeping the supply chain of U.S. technology independent from Chinese suppliers has endured as U.S. policy over the last two White House administrations under the doctrine of economic security being equal to national security. 

A recent study CSIS produced on the cybersecurity implications of the “decoupling” of Chinese and Western technology spheres warns of more aggressive offensive cyber operations to come.

“As new technologies emerge and become commonplace in industry—such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing—new market leaders will arise to provide competitive edges to each technosphere,” the CSIS report reads. “Unfettered competition between the spheres has the potential to create new vectors for offensive cyber operations; and as the spheres become increasingly distinct, potentially creating a clearer ‘frontline’ in the digital domain, belligerents could have less reason to display restraint in cyberspace.”

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