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5G technologies could challenge US spy agencies

“They’ll be swimming in an ocean of data that they can’t begin to parse,” Himes says

Signage for 5G technology is displayed at the Intel booth during CES 2018 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 9, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
Signage for 5G technology is displayed at the Intel booth during CES 2018 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 9, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

An avalanche of new technologies enabled by 5G wireless networks and artificial intelligence will pose new challenges for U.S. spy agencies as they strive to stay ahead of adversaries. These new technologies are set to fundamentally alter how data is collected, stored, and transmitted.

“We would find ourselves at a disadvantage relative to our opponents around the globe if we didn’t adopt and adapt” to these technological advances, said Rep. Jim Himes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee’s newly created Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research Subcommittee. The panel will focus on how U.S. intelligence agencies use emerging technologies. “Are we adopting and adapting technology within the intelligence community as rapidly as we need to?” is among the questions it intends to probe.

The new subcommittee Himes leads stemmed from a restructuring of House Intelligence by its new chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff. The California Democrat wants the panel to focus on core missions of intelligence gathering and threats rather than on specific spy agencies as it had in the past.

The U.S. budget for the intelligence community is large and the agencies vast and unwieldy — Congress approved $81.5 billion for fiscal 2018 for the 17 different intelligence agencies.

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The proliferation of technologies and big data presents both opportunities and challenges for intelligence agencies, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said when he released the National Intelligence Strategy in late January.

New technologies have “generated an ability to create and share vast and exponentially growing amounts of information farther and faster than ever before,” Coats said in the strategy. “This abundance of data provides significant opportunities for the [Intelligence Community], including new avenues for collection and the potential for greater insight, but it also challenges the IC’s ability to collect, process, evaluate, and analyze such enormous volumes of data quickly enough to provide relevant and useful insight to its customers.”

Himes, a soft-spoken Connecticut Democrat, points to the fast-approaching introduction of 5G — fifth generation wireless networks — as one of the more immediate challenges that intelligence agencies face.

“After 5G networks are fully rolled out, we will be dealing with orders of magnitude more data than we have today,” Himes said. “That’s a huge challenge to the intelligence community. If they’re not at the forefront of machine learning and artificial intelligence, they’ll be swimming in an ocean of data that they can’t begin to parse.”

‘Awful lot of data’

Asked if U.S. spy agencies are ready for what’s to come, Himes said he has yet to assess their preparedness since his panel has not begun holding hearings. But he pointed to how the technology can alter the landscape.

A 5G world will be much more decentralized in its nodes of information than 4G, which is more dependent on centralized cellular towers and servers. With the proliferation of new kinds of devices connected to the internet — from autonomous cars to smart door locks, the so-called Internet of Things — 5G will require many points of information exchange.

“An awful lot of data in 5G technology is moved out to the edge and a lot less data is at the core,” Himes said. “That’s a structural engineering challenge for the intelligence community.”

But just as intelligence agencies adapted to the digital world from an earlier analog era, Himes said they are likely to stay on top of the 5G challenge.

Extraordinary data speeds with little delay are one of the key promises of 5G technology.

With a combination of a large number of smaller antennas, higher frequency radio waves, and technologies that can move data bits around faster and more efficiently than current networks, 5G may be able to offer download speeds of 20 gigabits per second on a mobile network, compared with one gigabit on current 4G networks, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. And time delays would drop to less than one millisecond compared with about 70 milliseconds of delay on current networks, according to IEEE.

To deliver that kind of speed without delay, “the speed of light matters and starts to limit the physical distance between key bits of” equipment, Ian Levy, technical director of the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, said in a Feb. 20 blog post addressing security risks posed by 5G networks. “That means that geography starts to have an effect on where you put various bits of stuff. You need to move some of the core services closer to the edge, so those messages can get around quickly enough.”

In other words, having critical equipment and software closer to where 5G users live and work will be necessary to deliver data at high speed and could mean higher security risks compared with current mobile networks whose equipment is less widely spread out and therefore easier to protect from physical and cyber sabotage, Levy said. The center is part of the U.K.’s GCHQ, which is the equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.

5G on battlefield

For intelligence operatives supporting military actions, the arrival of 5G technologies would mean greater reliance on machine learning and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies to quickly decipher and act on information being generated by sensors, said David Simpson, a professor at Virginia Tech.

A surveillance system relying on 5G speeds to track a bomb-maker in a hostile country using remote sensors could automatically trigger the launch of a micro drone, for example, to conduct a closer investigation when certain conditions are met, rather than wait for human intervention, said Simpson, a retired Navy rear admiral who previously served as the Federal Communication Commission’s chief of public safety and homeland security, as well as the vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Beyond the imminent arrival of 5G are even more advanced developments, such as quantum computing and gains in biotechnology that could further erode American technological hegemony in the years to come unless all elements of the U.S. government working with U.S. companies are focused on maintaining the competitive edge, Himes said.

Quantum computers are powered by processors known as quantum bits or qubits as opposed to silicon-based chips that power standard computers. Unlike standard processors, qubits operating on subatomic principles can store greater quantities of information and operate millions of times faster than standard computers.

Such computers capable of breaking current encryption systems in the hands of adversaries could render national secrets useless, but Himes said U.S. intelligence officials believe encryption that can withstand quantum computers can be developed.

Remote forklifts

The high-speed data transfer with low delays as computers send instructions to each other in a faster internet would enable not only lower-end applications such as Internet of Things devices, but also higher-end applications such as “autonomous cars and other tactile internet driven applications such as augmented and virtual reality, factory automation, and smart grid” technologies among others, Cisco said.

“One of the biggest advantages of 5G is the radically improved latency,” Simpson said. Latency refers to the time taken for a packet of data to travel round trip between two points. What that means, Simpson said, is it “gives you the ability to control machines that heretofore required a person.”

With 5G technology, one could foresee a “factory forklift being operated from 600 miles away just as effectively” as by an operator physically present with the machine, “because you’re able to sense that tactile environment enough that you can translate those observations into perception,” Simpson said.

Correction Tuesday, March 12, 2019, 11:22 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the last name of Virginia Tech professor David Simpson. 

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