5G and security - What are the risks

If you’ve been paying attention to 5G news, you’ve probably heard a lot about the race to deploy it, various controversies, and the battle with Huawei about whether or not it can develop 5G infrastructure in certain countries.

A lot of this is overblown and politicized, and the issues are far more complex than you can get your head around in a 300-word news article with a snappy headline.

Yes, 5G is coming. Yes, it will bring faster speeds and drive a range of new technologies, although it probably won’t bring about the next industrial revolution as some claim.

Yes, some carriers have been manipulating customers about their 5G deployment. Yes, there is a range of different issues surrounding 5G. It’s set to bring new security challenges and could even affect the accuracy of our weather predictions.

But the most controversial issue – the battle against China and Huawei – is incredibly complex and nuanced, if you want to know more about this in detail take a look at our 5G: China, Huawei and the West deep-dive article. Rest assured that while there are national security issues related to 5G and its deployment by a foreign company, many of the claims you have heard in the news are dubious at best.

To understand such a complicated technological development, it’s best to start at the basics, then work our way up to the more important issues.

What is 5G?

5G is simply the fifth-generation (5G) of wireless mobile network technology. Despite the fact that it is often used as a marketing buzzword, 5G technology is actually standardized by an international industry group called the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).

3GPP’s standard is known as 5G NR (unless otherwise specified, assume that this article is referring to 5G NR whenever you see 5G used), an evolving standard that is actively defined over a number of separate releases. This is a little confusing given how these standards are commonly talked about, but 5G is not static – it will be developed and improved upon over time.

The same thing happened with 3G and 4G. While we refer to them as monolithic standards, a number of alterations were made over time. That’s why today’s 4G is much better than when it first launched. 3GPP published the bulk of Release 15 in 2018, which set out the foundation for the 5G mobile network standard.

Release 15 included the specifications for building 5G on top of existing infrastructure, as well as outlines for standalone 5G. Release 16 came out at the end of 2019 and included further updates, while Release 17 is expected in 2021.

5G NR has already rolled out in select markets, while many others throughout the world are quickly moving toward it. However, at this stage, it is generally only available in certain dense urban areas.

What’s so special about 5G?

While there is a lot of hype surrounding 5G, there are also some significant improvements. Before we cover them, it’s important to understand that there are three different types of 5G. They vary from incredibly fast but prone to distortions and interference, to slow yet stable.

Ideally, you would be connected to the fast type at all times. However, in many real-life situations, this connection will get interrupted. To cope with this and make sure that you at least have some reliable connection, 5G can jump between the different types as necessary, using a process known as adaptive beam switching.

5G can be divided into three different bands, based on the frequencies that they operate at:

  • Millimeter-wave – These are the bands ranging from 24 gigahertz (GHz) to 47 GHz (the largest to currently be licensed by the FCC). This is the fastest, but it has a short-range and can easily be blocked by things like buildings and trees, due to the small wavelengths involved. It also takes up a larger section of the radio wave spectrum, which allows a greater volume of connections and transfers, much like a multi-lane highway can move a greater volume of cars than a narrow road. This makes it appropriate for areas with high densities of people but without large obstructions, such as sporting events, festivals and center squares.
  • Mid-band – This includes the 2.5GHz, 3.5GHz and 3.7-4.2GHz bands, and it is the most widely deployed form of 5G. It offers a good compromise between speed, range and reliability.
  • Low-band – This type of 5G uses the 600 MHz, 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands (this is 0.6 GHz, 0.8 GHz and 0.9 GHz respectively. One gigahertz is 1,000 megahertz. Although it may seem confusing, we have switched units because this is the most common way you will see low-band 5G frequencies written). The speeds of low-band 5G are far from ideal, but the long wavelengths make it incredibly resistant to distortion. While it may not be great for fast downloads, it will have better reach in more rural areas than the other types. It also has a number of other applications, such as in IoT devices that need reliability rather than large or rapid transfers.

Speed

Qualcomm, one of the key industry players, estimates that 5G could eventually bring speeds of up to 20 gigabytes per second (Gbps).

To put that in perspective, the average 4G download speed in New York for Verizon was clocked at 33.9 megabytes per second (Mbps, which converts to 0.0339 Gbps). To give international readers a better idea, Hong Kong’s download speeds on csl averaged 22.1 Mbps. Those in smaller or less-technologically developed towns probably experience significantly lower speeds, while those in rural areas may not be able to access 4G at all.

Granted, the above comparisons are real-world speeds, and just as they don’t tend to live up to the theoretical potential of 4G, it is unlikely for users to experience 5G at the above-mentioned 20 Gbps. So far, 5G tests on real-world networks have shown speeds ranging from 470 Mbps to a peak of 1,815 Mbps. In many cases, low-band 5G may not be much faster than good 4G.

Real-world speeds will vary not just by the band type, but also a person’s proximity to the tower, network congestion, and the technology in the end-user’s device. However, as we continue to upgrade the networks and our phones, speeds should increase significantly over time.

Latency

Latency is the time taken between when data is sent and when it arrives (although it is also often measured as the time it takes for data to be sent, arrive at its destination, and for the acknowledgment of its arrival to be received by the original sender).

A good example of latency is when you watch live sports on the TV – there is a slight delay between the real-life events and when you view them on your screen.

Obviously, if there is a long delay in data transmission, it can cause a range of issues. One example that many will be familiar with is in online gaming, where the lagging caused by a high latency connection can make it difficult to act at the appropriate times, resulting in poor gameplay and frustrating experience.

High latency also causes issues in a wide range of areas, from industry and manufacturing to the deployment of new technology. According to Qualcomm, 5G has the potential to reduce latency by a factor of 10, which could lead to a wide range of technical developments and new applications.

When it comes to the real world, a study from Opensignal looked at the 4G latency in 40 US cities, and found it to range between 60.5 milliseconds (ms) and 42.2ms. In comparison, a German telecom provider has shown a latency of 3ms in its 5G trials, indicating that 5G will offer users a significantly better experience.

Capacity

Have you ever been to an event with thousands of people cramped together, and not been able to get your phone to work? Maybe you didn’t receive important messages until five hours later, or perhaps you couldn’t use your phone to find your friends.

When too many people in one place try to connect to a network, it causes congestion, and either slows down the service or prevents you from being able to reliably access it. You may have also noticed this at peak usage hours. When everyone goes online at the same time, it slows down your internet speed, making it hard to complete your tasks.

The good news is that 5G is set to ease some of this congestion.

5G opens up a range of new frequencies, allowing a greater number of connections and larger flows of data, without causing as much strain on the network. It can be viewed similarly to putting in a super-highway to ease traffic and should result in better experiences during peak usage times, as well as when thousands of people congregate in one area and overload the infrastructure.

Energy efficiency

The 5G standard was designed to limit unnecessary effort and reduce the power consumption of radio network equipment. In a 4G network, base stations continue to use large amounts of power, even when they are idle. Despite the fact that they aren’t transmitting user data, they continue to suck up power to send out system information, synchronization signals and reference signals.

5G is more efficient because it can turn off hardware components when not in active use. It requires far fewer of these synchronization and other signals, meaning that its components can spend a considerably larger portion of time in sleep mode. A study by Ericsson found that 5G networks would use about half the power of LTE.

5G NR vs 5G E

5g e

AT&T, the company at the heart of the settlement. AT&T sign logo by Michael Mozart licensed under CC0.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that just because something is labeled 5G doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is. In 2019, AT&T settled a lawsuit with Sprint, after the latter accused the former of deceptive practices regarding its marketing of what AT&T was calling 5G Evolution (5G E).

While neither party has gone into detail about the settlement, AT&T had been marketing LTE Advanced under the 5GE banner, and even switched over the icon on Android phones. However, 5G E isn’t a technical standard, and the term doesn’t mean anything. It’s just marketing bluster.

This led to many customers being deceived by AT&T’s hype, thinking that they were actually being delivered true 5G. In reality, a study conducted by Opensignal found that the speeds on 5G E were comparable to 4G LTE Advanced on other networks.

5G vs fiber

Some people may question how 5G and fiber optic networks relate to each other, or whether 5G will ultimately replace fiber. The best way to put it is that 5G and fiber are complementary, rather than rivals.

Fiber performs much better over long distances, with minimal loss in signal strength. But fiber cabling is hardly mobile. No one wants to return to the days of keeping their phone connected to the wall. That’s why it’s best to integrate it with 5G technology, allowing a world full of mobile and connected devices, while still maintaining strong and fast signals.

The best compromise between the two involves good fiber optic cabling throughout our cities, connected up to 5G to provide strong yet mobile connections to users and their devices.

The applications & benefits of 5G

The enhanced speeds, lower latency, increased capacity, greater energy efficiency and other features of 5G will bring a host of new opportunities to our technological landscape.

Faster data transfers at almost real-time will open up a range of possibilities that previous connections were simply too slow and laggy to handle. These improvements will also make many of the existing features that we’ve come to rely on much smoother.

Some possible developments include:

  • Faster browsing speeds, website loading and video buffering times.
  • Better quality video calls.
  • New wearable tech with additional features.
  • Smoother gameplay for online multiplayer games.
  • Greater precision and improved reaction times in drones and autonomous vehicles.
  • More realistic augmented and virtual reality experiences, as well as a reduction in motion sickness caused by lag.
  • Advances and greater adoption of IoT devices and smart city developments, such as smart traffic lights and car-to-car communication.
  • Remote healthcare, such as monitoring, consultation, or perhaps even robotic surgery.

What are the security risks of 5G?

The security risks of 5G can be broken down into three main categories:

  • Risks associated with increased data transfers and the proliferation of poorly secured IoT devices that will appear alongside 5G.
  • Risks inherent in 5G technology.
  • Risks associated with Chinese-deployed infrastructure.

The risks associated with China and Huawei seem to take up most of the media attention when it comes to 5G and its security. It’s actually far more complicated and political than headlines make it out to be, so we’ll cover the issue in our deep-dive article, The 5G debate: What’s really happening?

For now, it’s best to understand that there are risks that come alongside having a foreign company involved in the development of your critical communications infrastructure. However, many of the allegations made against China and Huawei appear to be politically motivated rather than based on fact, which has obscured the reality of the situation.

Increased usage & IoT-related 5G risks

5G promises to be faster and have a greater capacity, so it follows that we will end up using it more. As humans, we’ve hardly been the types to say no, and when more of a certain thing becomes available, we tend to find ways to use it up.

If the implementation and use of 5G lead to a greater number of connections and a larger amount of data being transferred, it follows that the attack surface area will increase alongside it. Greater use simply brings more opportunities for hackers to find a way in.

This will play out similarly to the overall increasing trend of hacking – it was a much more niche industry 10 or 20 years ago, when fewer people used the internet, and fewer tasks could be completed online.

Now that we can do everything from online banking to career networking with just the phones in our pockets, there is a wealth of opportunities for hackers. The increased usage that will come along with 5G will only serve to exacerbate this.

A greater number of IoT devices

In addition to the overall increase in volume, 5G is also likely to bring with it a proliferation of IoT devices. This is because the speeds and capacities associated with 5G will make IoT devices far more practical for a range of new tasks.

This will also increase the attack surface area, by introducing a host of new endpoints. This is worrying because many IoT devices have poor security, especially those that come from cheaper and less-reputable manufacturers.

If the number of online IoT devices increases in magnitude alongside the rise of 5G, it will create two major problems. The first is that these poorly secured IoT devices are akin to installing a bunch of new doorways in the walls of your house and fixing them with flimsy cardboard doors. They give criminals a bunch of new ways to easily break into your house.

Just like in our metaphor, poorly secured IoT devices will introduce a number of new weak points into home and workplace networks, giving hackers numerous opportunities to make their way in. From this point, they can launch a wide range of attacks, including data or intellectual property theft, ransomware attacks and sabotage.

See also: How safe is your data with the IoT and smart devices?

The other major threat comes from the possibility of these IoT devices becoming enslaved in botnets. If there are countless poorly secured devices out there, all it takes is a little know-how to turn them into an army that can do your bidding.

A wily hacker can create malware that manages to spread to hundreds of thousands or millions of devices and then use their collective power to launch criminal endeavors, or simply rent out the massive botnet to others.

Such a botnet can be used to launch DDoS attacks that shut down websites and services for extended periods, to distribute malware that compromises millions of PCs, as part of elaborate phishing campaigns that trick people out of their passwords or credit card details, and in many other scams.

New IoT applications

It’s not just the sheer number of IoT devices that could cause security issues. The type of devices that may be connected could also bring new risks. One example is 5G’s potential to increase the connectivity of autonomous vehicles.

As these become more prominent and practical, hackers may seek to launch attacks against them, which could prove deadly. IoT industrial equipment will also bring similar risks as more of it becomes connected to the internet. Likewise, the integrated technology of smart cities could be leveraged by hackers in attacks that aim to grind critical functions to a halt.

While the above risks are likely to accompany the rise of 5G, they aren’t due to any flaw inherent in the standard itself. Instead, they are due to how 5G will evolve the tech landscape, increase internet and IoT usage, and bring about new attack opportunities.

See also: 60+ IoT statistics and facts

Risks inherent in 5G technology

Many of 5G’s design features were developed to overcome some of the security vulnerabilities that existed in 4G and previous standards. Some of these include:

  • Network slicing is a type of network architecture that has implications far beyond security. It allows providers to optimize networks for a range of different scenarios. One of the main security benefits is that it isolates and compartmentalizes resources into slices, meaning that compromises will only affect a specific slice, rather than all of the connected assets. Each slice can also be customized with its own protection mechanisms and security measures, to suit the unique risks of the situation.
  • Signal traffic encryption and integrity protection helps guard against eavesdropping and modification attacks.
  • Secure identity management builds up the measures for identifying and authenticating users.

It’s important to acknowledge that even though 5G is a step-up in security compared to 4G, there is a difference between the risks of the theoretical standard and the real-world implementations of it. While this isn’t specific to 5G, things rarely work out as intended in practice.

5G will be deployed and implemented by network providers, and not the bodies that developed the standards. Not only will the deployment process be complex, but the goals of the providers don’t necessarily align with those who designed 5G.

In a repetition of the mistakes of 4G, it’s likely that providers will overlook some mandatory security mechanisms, either through incompetence or because they are too costly.

The issues are compounded because providers aren’t going straight to standalone 5G. Many providers are building 5G on top of existing 4G infrastructure, which could leave certain vulnerabilities from the existing technology. It could be a decade or more before a full transition away from 4G infrastructure has been completed, so our systems may still feature 4G vulnerabilities long into the future.

With this in mind, we can divide 5G’s security vulnerabilities into three major areas:

  • Known vulnerabilities in the standard.
  • Unknown vulnerabilities that are yet to be discovered, because the standard is immature and hasn’t been extensively tested in real-world situations.
  • Vulnerabilities due to improper implementation of 5G’s specifications.

While vulnerabilities that haven’t been discovered yet, and those caused by improper implementation will be serious threats, their very nature means that there is little to discuss until after the fact. With this in mind, we will focus on the known vulnerabilities of the 5G standard.

5G’s authentication and key agreement protocol

5G’s authentication and key agreement (AKA) protocol is based on the protocol currently used in 4G, and is one of the two authentication methods available in 5G. A group of international academics conducted a formal systematic evaluation of the protocol and found it to have a range of flaws and a lack of precision.

The team found that the 5G standard underspecifies its authentication requirements. It asserts that this could lead to subscribers being associated with an incorrect identifying number, which could potentially lead to an attacker billing another subscriber for their own network use.

The paper also raises the possibility that subscribers could be tracked if an observer is monitoring the 5G AKA authentication session. Observers may be able to distinguish between subscribers based on their answers during the session, opening up the window for them to be tracked over time. 

This could violate their privacy and lead to a range of other attacks. Another issue is that the standard does not specify the mutual acknowledgment of the key agreement.

The report made a number of recommendations for how the authentication and key agreement protocol could be beefed up to bolster security. These included going into further detail on the specifications and adding in redundancies.

Radio jamming & related attacks

5g-2

Under the current 5G standard, it’s possible for attackers to jam the base station (pictured) signal, preventing mobile users from accessing the network. Mobile radio transmitter by Diermaier licensed under CC0.

Radio jamming is a significant worry because attackers can block access to network service in an area. Spoofing is another key threat because adversaries can use it to impersonate other parties. Sniffing is also a concern because it allows attackers to view the contents of data transmissions, which can violate privacy and lead to other attacks.

While 5G is more resistant than 4G to radio jamming, spoofing and sniffing, a research team from the US discovered that 5G still has some vulnerabilities to these attacks. The most worrying areas involve the Primary Synchronization Signal (PSS) and the Physical Broadcast Channel (PBCH) because these are susceptible to attacks that are efficient and have a low level of complexity.

The PSS is involved in frame, slot and symbol timing, as well as transmitting the physical cell ID. The researchers found that the most effective attack involved spoofing signals rather than injecting noise on top of them. This is because this approach doesn’t require synchronization to the base station, and can be conducted with a lower amount of jammer power.

The attack involves sending fake PSSs at a higher power, without overlapping with the actual PSS. A successful attack can deny service in an area, preventing those affected from being able to make calls or send messages.

In a given situation, the exact method for successful jamming will depend on the chipsets in the devices of targeted individuals, as well as if any blacklisting measures are in place.

Certain circumstances would require the attacker to spoof the Secondary Synchronization Signal (SSS) as well, in order for the attack to succeed. If sophisticated blacklisting measures are being used, the attackers would have to transmit more spoofed PSSs to overcome them.

The other area that is most vulnerable is the Physical Broadcast Channel (PBCH). The PBCH is involved in transmitting information such as the position of the downlink control channel, the position of downlink reference signals, and the subcarrier spacing.

When the PBCH is jammed, end users can’t access the information they need to make connections to the base station. This lack of information stops new devices from accessing base stations, therefore preventing them from being able to make calls or send messages.

Attackers can synchronize their jammers to targeted cells to jam signals in a time-selective manner. Alternatively, attackers can jam the subcarriers, although this is more complex.

One of the PBCH’s components is the System Information Block (SIB). Among the information it carries are details about power thresholds that lead to the handover to another base station, lists of whitelisted and blacklisted base stations, as well as other data about mobility.

This information is transmitted in an unencrypted state, which leaves open the possibility that attackers could spoof these messages, and impersonate either someone’s device or a base station, which could then lead to further attacks.

To mitigate the first issue of PSS spoofing, the report’s authors recommended setting up a timer that sets out when the SSS must be received by. If a user’s device doesn’t receive the SSS within this time frame, it should blacklist the PSS and instead use the second strongest base station at the same frequency.

PSS and SSS spoofing attacks could be prevented if user devices each created lists of the received power levels for base stations in a given frequency.

A timer system could also be set up for the PBCH. If the timer lapsed before the Master Information Block was decoded (MIB), the user’s device could also move on to the PBCH of the next strongest base station.

Taking such measures to prevent jamming, spoofing and sniffing are important for security, because these attacks aren’t necessarily that difficult to mount. According to the authors, all they require are “widely available open-source libraries, a low-cost SDR with a budget under $1000, and basic Linux programming skills.”

Device capability information attacks

In a paper presented at Blackhat USA 2019, researchers presented their findings on three separate attacks that were possible on 5G as well as previous generations. These included:

  • Identification attacks which allowed adversaries to find devices on the cell network and discover pertinent details about them, known as device capability information.
  • Bidding down attacks that slowed down mobile services.
  • Attacks that could drain the target device’s battery.

Each of these possibilities is worrying because they provide attackers with ways to either identify and track their targets or to limit the usability of their devices.

The first attack leverages the fact that an adversary can gain insight into a device’s capability information without having to be authenticated. This made it possible for the researchers to scan devices and inspect their information, such as the manufacturer and model, as well as the software in use.

In certain situations, this can be enough information to identify the device’s owner, and such knowledge could subsequently be used in further attacks such as tracking.

The bidding down attack was capable of downgrading targets to 3G or 2G networks and could strip back the data rate from 27 Mbps to 3.7 Mbps. These huge slowdowns were achieved by taking advantage of requests to radio access capabilities from user devices that occur before radio resource control (RRC) security measures have been set up.

This gave the researchers access to their targeted device’s capabilities in plain text, allowing it to be hijacked through a man-in-the-middle attack. They could then alter the capability information, which dropped down the speeds that the device could access. They found this attack to be effective in 21 of the 30 networks that they tried it against across the globe.

The final attack was able to drain the batteries of devices that used Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) and Long Term Evolution Machine Type Communication (LTE-M). The entry point of this attack was that Attach Request messages are sent from user devices to the network in an unencrypted fashion.

Attackers can intercept these messages and modify the information in a man-in-the-middle attack. If they alter the Attach Request to disable the power saving mode, the user’s device will never get the message from the network that tells them to turn on power-saving mode. This makes the battery drain much faster. In the researchers’ test case, the battery was used up five times faster than normal.

The researchers found that each of these attacks was silent, and could persist for several days. They also noted that the 5G specifications did not include the necessary measures to mitigate them. However, the issues have been reported to network providers and certain standardization bodies, which are apparently working towards addressing the problems.

The researchers’ proposed fix was for devices to have authentication and security measures take place before any of the information that causes these vulnerabilities was sent out.

Cellular paging vulnerabilities

A research group consisting of academics from Purdue University and the University of Iowa investigated the possible security issues inherent in 5G and 4G’s cellular paging protocol.

They found a range of potential vulnerabilities, including the possibilities of uncovering a target’s identity, tracking them, fabricating paging messages and launching denial-of-service attacks.

To understand how these attacks work, we first need to cover some of the background of how phones function and what the cellular paging protocol is.

Phones go into a battery saving mode when they aren’t actively communicating with a base station. While this saves power, phones that are in this idle mode still need to be notified when there is an incoming SMS or call.

This is accomplished with a cellular paging protocol that aims to find the right balance between service quality and a phone’s power use. When a device is idling and saving power, it intermittently polls for pending services. The periods between these so-called ‘paging occasions’, are set according to the particular network and device.

When there are incoming calls or texts, base stations send out paging messages to the appropriate device, which includes a temporary identifying number. In practice, these temporary identifiers are changed infrequently.

Attackers can use this to their advantage, and determine whether a specific target is within their vicinity. They accomplish this by making repeated calls or sending multiple SMS and messenger application messages to their intended target over a short time frame and then sniffing the resulting paging messages.

In cases where the same identifying number appears frequently enough, this alerts the attacker that the victim’s device is nearby.

If the identifying numbers have been configured to change regularly, they are often altered in a predictable manner, which still allows attackers to achieve the same result, just with a little more effort.

The paper found that attackers could even identify their target’s presence in best-case scenarios where the identifying numbers are changed both frequently and randomly.

They accomplished this with an attack that they dubbed ToRPEDO, which makes it possible to determine a target device’s presence within a geographical cell in under ten calls.

This technique also gives the attacker the first seven bits of the device’s International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI), as the timings of when it wakes up to check paging messages. With this knowledge, two further attacks can be launched to unveil the device’s full IMSI.

The ToRPEDO attack affects both 4G and the current 5G standard. It allows attackers to overtake the paging channel of their targets, which they can use to launch denial-of-service attacks that stop them from receiving calls or messages.

Under this attack, adversaries can also send out fake emergency messages. They could even set up sniffers at their target’s frequently visited locations, and track them.

The information gained from a ToRPEDO attack also allows two further attacks in exceptional circumstances. One was called PIERCER by the research group, while they simply referred to the other as an IMSI-Cracking attack.

PIERCER takes advantage of a setup that only exists on some networks. Under the right conditions, an attacker can ascertain the ISMI number of their target’s device. All they need is the target’s cell number, a fake base station (these are surprisingly cheap to set up) and a sniffer. Once they get a hold of an ISMI number, hackers can use it to identify and track the target,

An ISMI-Cracking attack leverages the information gained in ToRPEDO and would allow an attacker to find out the ISMI through brute force. In the researcher’s experiments, they were able to brute force an ISMI in 13 hours.

As a mitigation strategy to ToRPEDO and its subsequent attacks, the group recommended a countermeasure that involves forming fake paging messages that add noise among the distribution of real paging messages. This would make the attacks prohibitively expensive, while only consuming moderate amounts of energy on devices.

The researchers reported their findings to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (more commonly known as GSMA, which is an acronym for the group’s previous name, the Groupe Spécial Mobile Association). While the GSMA has acknowledged the submission, it hasn’t made any public comment over whether the issues will be addressed.

Other 5G concerns

Security isn’t the only worry when it comes to 5G. There has also been some commotion regarding whether it has any negative health effects, and even well-regarded bodies like NASA have claimed that it could affect our weather forecasting accuracy.

Are 5G’s health concerns valid?

The debate about mobile phones and health has been raging for decades. Although at this stage, we can’t definitively say that they don’t cause medical problems, most of the evidence that has been gathered so far leans toward that conclusion.

With the emergence of 5G, the debate has begun to flare up once more, so it’s important to dive into the facts and science, rather than be swayed by claims or terrifying headlines. First, let’s discuss the more general health concerns before moving on to those specific to 5G.

Prior mobile network generations like 3G and 4G use low microwave bands that operate at between 600 Megahertz (MHZ) and 3,500 MHz. Like wifi network signals, they fall into the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and operate at non-ionizing frequencies. This basically means that they can’t strip electrons away from atoms, and cause the same kind of harm that X-rays or gamma rays do.

One of the main health concerns related to mobile phones is cancer. While in certain cases, it can be difficult to distinguish whether or not something is carcinogenic, we do have an agency that does its best to collate the evidence and provide an appropriate evaluation.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization. Not only does it coordinate cancer research across the globe, but it also maintains a list of the environmental causes of cancer.

The IARC lists radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (these range from 30 Hertz to 300 Gigahertz, which is far wider than the range of mobile networks) as 2B, which it defines as possibly carcinogenic to humans. To fall into this category, a substance has to meet only one of the following conditions:

  • Limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans.
  • Sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.
  • Strong evidence that the agent exhibits key characteristics of seven carcinogens.

This may seem a little worrying, but you shouldn’t be too concerned about this designation. It means that mobile phones share the same billing as substances as seemingly benign as pickled vegetables and aloe vera.

With this designation in mind, the best assessment we can take from the IARC is that the cancer risks of mobile phones are not conclusively known, and we simply need more research.

The United States National Cancer Institute takes a stronger stance, stating that “Radiofrequency energy, unlike ionizing radiation, does not cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Its only consistently observed biological effect in humans is tissue heating. In animal studies, it has not been found to cause cancer or to enhance the cancer-causing effects of known chemical carcinogens.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also backs up this position.

As for other health concerns, a European study found no causal association between brain tumors and mobile phone use among children. Another study conducted in Boston found that there was no correlation between male semen quality and mobile phone use.

While there are some studies that have found evidence to the contrary, they make up a small minority, and the majority of respected health organizations have concluded that there is no definitive link between mobile phone radiation and health issues. At the same time, many of these organizations and individual scientists call for further investigation.

When we move on to 5G, things are slightly different. While previous network generations max out at 3,500 MHz, the millimeter-wave of 5G is set to operate at frequencies of 28,000 MHz, and in the future, it will operate at much higher bands.

While this new territory may seem like cause for concern, the 5G millimeter wave still falls into the non-ionizing range, which is generally seen as non-harmful. Another major worry is that this 5G millimeter wave has a very limited range, so many more antennas would be needed, which may increase exposure.

While we should certainly be concerned about any possible health effects of new technological developments, many of the claims made so far aren’t overly convincing, even those coming from otherwise respected institutions.

In an opinion piece by Joel M. Moskowitz, published in Scientific American, the author mentioned “the preponderance of peer-reviewed research, more than 500 studies, have found harmful biologic or health effects from exposure to RFR [radiofrequency radiation] at intensities too low to cause significant heating.”

This sounds ominous until you look up the very first study under the linked document’s Mobile and Cordless Phone section. In the paper by Vila et al., the researchers found that “There was no clear evidence for a positive association between RF [radio frequency] or IF-EMF [intermediate frequency electromagnetic fields] and the brain tumors studied

To be completely fair to both sides, they state in the conclusion that although “no clear associations were identified”, the “results obtained for recent exposure to RF electric and magnetic fields are suggestive of a potential role in brain tumor promotion/progression and should be further investigated.”

Essentially, the scientists conclude that they didn’t find any evidence, but further research should be conducted. This is a completely reasonable position. Just because one study doesn’t find any links to health issues doesn’t mean that future studies won’t.

However, it’s intellectually dishonest to include a study that comes to these conclusions in your “preponderance of peer-reviewed research, more than 500 studies, [that] have found harmful biologic or health effects from exposure to RFR”.

Obviously, it’s impractical to evaluate each of the 500 studies, but if the conclusions of the very first one don’t back up your position, it makes us seriously question the rest of the evidence you claim, and perhaps your competence and motives for asserting 5G-related health concerns.

Another prominent call-to-arms against the potential negative health effects is the 5G Appeal. While an impressive-sounding 264 scientists (at the time of writing) have signed their names to it, the claims it makes are far from convincing when you wade into its sources.

One of the most prominently featured studies of the 5G Appeal is a study on rats that concluded:

“Increased incidence of heart schwannomas in male rats exposed to GSM- or CDMA modulated RFR is statistically significant by the chi-square trend test. The evidence is better for CDMA exposure than GSM exposure. I think additional experiments are needed to assess if the incidence of brain gliomas in male rats exposed to GSM- or CDMA-modulated RFR is significantly higher than the control group or not.”

Again, this is far from definitive, stating that they need further research to determine whether the cancer rates are any higher than normal. One of the 5G Appeal’s other most-touted sources is the Bioinitiative report which is self-published and has not undergone the peer-review process. This report has also been heavily criticized by a range of well-respected bodies including:

While at least one study does seem to support the 5G Appeal’s claims, further investigation is needed to determine whether its findings are valid, especially considering the large number of studies to the contrary.

At this stage, with such a significant number of studies concluding that 5G and other mobile network technologies are not dangerous to the health, the best move forward is to proceed with caution and continue to further evaluate the health effects. There simply hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence to warrant putting a halt to 5G developments.

Will 5G affect our weather-predicting abilities?

In the future, 5G’s millimeter wave is set to operate in the higher frequencies, in the same range as those used to detect water vapor (23.6-24 GHz), snow and rain (36-37 GHz), atmospheric temperature (50.2-50.4 GHz), and ice and clouds (80-90 GHz).

Various bodies have claimed that 5G signals in this range could cause interference, with the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Neil Jacobs stating that it could set back the accuracy of weather forecasting by 40 years.

America’s top weather body is not alone, with NASA and the Navy sharing similar fears. To put it simply, meteorologists are worried that interference from 5G signals will add noise to their measurements, making them less accurate. With less accurate readings, their forecasting ability would also be much poorer.

On the other side of things, we have the telecommunications industry. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission are both strongly pushing forward, claiming that any effect on weather forecasting is overblown.

To get to the bottom of this, it’s probably best to consider the motivations of each side. If there weren’t any potential interference issues with 5G, why would meteorologists lie about it? Does Big Weather have it in for telecommunications? Are those deep-pocketed meteorologists secretly funding an alternative that they hope to make bank on?

There don’t seem to be any obvious reasons for meteorologists and well-respected organizations like NASA to lie about this. But what happens when we conduct the same thought experiment from the perspective of the telecommunications industry?

If they’ve already put years of work and countless resources into the current 5G standard, they surely wouldn’t be too happy to deal with protests from weather forecasters – especially when they are in the middle of rolling out their decade-long project.

If you put yourself in its shoes, it’s pretty easy to understand why the telecommunications industry might want to ignore complaints coming from pesky meteorologists. Would you want to overhaul your plans after already putting in so much effort?

At this stage, it seems as though the interference issues are being ignored, and 5G will roll out as planned. However, meteorologists and their related parties are still looking for a solution that can work for both sides.

5G is coming – are we ready?

While 5G has already begun its rollout, most of us will still be waiting a while before we experience the incredible speeds that have been hyped. While the next step in mobile networks does promise to bring us a range of advantages, there are still a number of complications that need to be addressed.

Many of the security issues can be fixed without much hassle, the weather prediction problems could be solved with a little compromise, and we could keep studying the health effects to find out if 5G really is dangerous.

While these problems are far from insurmountable, they rely on the decision-makers to actually listen to the complaints and how they affect other parties. By blindly focusing on the fastest 5G roll out possible, we could be missing out on a system that is safer and more functional for everyone.

Image adapted from “Accessibility browsing” by Mohamed Hassan licensed under CC0.