Israel, North Korea, Russia, Iran, the US, and China, as major cyberpowers, are all in the process of trying to claim territory in cyberspace.
Some of the hottest real estate on Earth in 2019 can’t be divided into parcels of land.
It’s not even visible.
It is on the electromagnetic spectrum, and deciding who gets to divvy it up could control the future of business as we know it. New “5G,” or “fifth generation,” technology promises to deliver more data at much faster rates than the current standards. Although 5G offers less physical range for signals and requires more antennae to function, it opens up long-awaited possibilities for the kind of networking that driverless cars and telemedicine require to function.
The 5G rollout uses more energetic range of the radio spectrum, and needs to be parceled out by governments to companies for use. Already, the biggest US telecoms firms have staked claims to this part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which vibrates closer to infrared, than regular radio broadcasts.
Though it may never truly eclipse 4G, 5G has different possible applications, such as the directed transfer of information from point-to-point. Instead of 4G’s lawn sprinkler, 5G can be a data firehose.
And so, the march of progress brings greater and greater wonders, connecting more people and creating a global communications infrastructure that allows global business to flourish, either as digital companies or traditional ones digitalizing their operations.
The problem is that 5G rollout, unlike earlier incarnations of Internet and wireless technology, is happening in a “multipolar” world.
While the US is so far unmatched in military strength, it is only one major player among several when it comes to cyberspace and the equipment that makes it work. The electromagnetic spectrum has become the fiercest arena for conflict between states, and economic or even military advantage does not mean supremacy over an opponent. Israel, North Korea, Russia, Iran, the US, and China, as major cyberpowers, are all in the process of trying to claim territory in cyberspace, and it is not clear who will come out on top.
A strong advantage is likely to go to whoever can build the infrastructure itself. The US knows this from its own experience during the Cold War, when it built a global telecommunications network faster than its Soviet rival. US leadership sees China as poised to do the same, but with the US on the losing end this time.
All of these cyber powers could put new 5G technology to work for their advantage, and arguably already are trying to. What those advantages could look like is unclear, but US telecoms regulators fear Chinese technology implanted in US 5G circuitry could be turned on by Beijing in the event of a war. That would represent a violation of existing rules against targeting civilians in war, but for cyberspace there seem to be no real rules. For 5G to thrive, that lawlessness needs to end.
Cyberwar is bad for cyber business, and bad for consumers, too. Telecoms technology is subject the trade barriers in ways that restrict its flow between countries but also complicates their application inside countries.
The world’s biggest technology companies are civilian in nature, but their products and properties are increasingly being drafted into inter-state cyber battles.
Microsoft president Brad Smith proposed a solution in 2017, a “Digital Geneva Convention,” one that encourages both transparency and discretion. Business should be there to report new hacking threats to governments, but governments should to report hacking vulnerabilities they find in civilian software, instead of exploiting those flaws in secret.
Governments also must restrain their development of cyberweapons, and make sure that once released, they cannot be duplicated for future attacks.
Just as competition for building 5G networks is happening in the invisible realm of electromagnetic radiation, the ethical dimensions of cyberwar are hard to visualize, as the battlefield is both worldwide and confined by the dimensions of a smartphone screen.
But Smith emphasizes that the physical infrastructure of the Internet is still civilian-owned property, as with the IP involved in software.
“In fundamental ways, this new plane of battle is different from those of the past. It starts with the fact that cyberspace does not exist in a clearly tangible form in the physical world,” Smith wrote in 2017. “But beyond this, cyberspace in fact is produced, operated, managed and secured by the private sector. Governments obviously play all sorts of critical roles, but the reality is that the targets in this new battle—from submarine cables to datacenters, servers, laptops, and smartphones—in fact are private property owned by civilians.”
States will have to commit to keeping business out of harm’s way.
5G technology promises to link up not just social media accounts to marketing firms, but the very gears and levers of modern civilization itself, transport, healthcare, or any other bit of infrastructure that could be made faster and more efficient with 5G. It is hard to even know yet, as the technology is still in its early stages.
Businesses need to lead the way on 5G in demanding protection from the liabilities imposed by cyber conflict undertaken by governments using civilian systems. If they do not do that, 5G and future technologies will continue to suffer unwelcome externalities that hurt their bottom line. Telecommunication companies are subject to regulatory scrutiny already, and benefit from the protection of their intellectual property and facilities that governments provide, but being dragged into a war was not part of the public-private partnership bargain.