03-02-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Brazil's government ordered that companies that win 5G contracts to create the next generation cellular infrastructure must also provide a secondary network for government officials. What companies are at the centre of attention, what advantages does such a network provide, and what pressures are the Brazilian government under?
The integration of 5G around the world is a work in progress. Still, the many security concerns posed by Chinese suppliers, including Huawei, have seen many governments ban their equipment and, therefore, has resulted in a slow rate of 5G integration. While some countries such as the US and UK can afford to implement such bans, other countries with poorer populations can find such a ban extremely challenging.
Brazil is one of many nations that recognise the importance of good infrastructure, and how infrastructure can help to accelerate economic growth. As such, Brazil's government is offering an auction on the 5G spectrum to incentivise tech companies to develop their 5G capabilities.
However, a secondary requirement has been listed with the winning contracts; those companies must also create a secondary 5G network with high-security features that is only available to the government. One company that repeatedly comes to view during these auctions, Huawei, has started a conversation as to whether Brazil should ban the use of Huawei equipment or enter the 5G spectrum contract bidding.
In a world where everything is increasing in interconnectivity, the risk of attack from cybercriminals continues to rise. Furthermore, the nature of devices being connected to networks has moved from personal computers and websites to include major infrastructures such as traffic control systems and power grids.
The result of the increasing risk in cybercrime and connected infrastructure is that both foreign and domestic powers can attack a nation’s capability to use computers. A cyber terrorist could disrupt the power in a specific region to disable security features in a bank or prison while a foreign power could attack power stations, or cause traffic incidences that can grind transport logistics to a halt.
However, the use of a private 5G network goes beyond internet-related attacks; a private network can act as a redundant communication system. During an attack on a nation, communication is arguably the most important factor in providing a strong defence. Public communication networks can potentially be attacked remotely, but a secondary network that not even citizens can use provides all branches of government with an untouched communication network. Furthermore, the separation of government communication from public communication means that traffic on such networks is easily maintainable with minimal interference from sudden peaks in use.
While the intention to create a private 5G network for "governmental-use-only” provides many advantages to defence and security, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. No matter how many security protocols are implemented into the 5G network, if the underlying hardware contains backdoors and other malware then any data transmitted is compromised.
It’s been known in many areas of industry that China has a poor reputation when it comes to security, intellectual property, and honesty. China has repeatedly been a major security risk from installing spy equipment into the African Union Headquarters to the integration of backdoor chips into server equipment. The many incidences over the years have now seen western nations move away from Chinese equipment.
Brazil is a developing nation with poverty and poor access to infrastructure. For these reasons (and others), the Brazilian government wants to develop their 5G infrastructure. The companies that win the contracts not only have to provide a private 5G network for the government, they also have to provide fibre internet access to light populated areas to help spread economic growth.
But this is where Brazil finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. One one side, the western world is telling Brazil to ban the use of companies such as Huawei whose equipment cannot be fully trusted, and could leave them compromised. This thinking also falls in line with the creation of a secure network for the government. If the underlying 5G equipment allows China to gain access to their government network then the use of a separated network becomes pointless.
However, Brazil is a developing nation, and as such may not be able to afford the luxury of picking and choosing which companies can install 5G infrastructure. If Huawei provides such a network at a fraction of others cost while also providing a faster time-frame, the country could benefit from 5G connectivity sooner, ahus providing growth at an accelerated rate.
Brazil wants to provide its citizens with the latest 5G technology, and continue to improve infrastructure at all corners of its nation. However, the use of Chinese equipment could undermine their plans for a secure government network, and a network that is fundamentally insecure could potentially harm their economy down the line. Brazil needs to think very carefully before providing contracts to companies that it cannot trust.