Coronavirus or COVID-19 as the experts call it has disrupted global activities and brought to a halt economic activity across the world. As Virologists, Epidemiologists and Public Health Practitioners continue to work tirelessly in search of possible containment strategy and development of vaccines, many conspiracy theories have been propounded.
Key among the conspiracy theories is the linkage of 5G to the spread of COVID-19. Some have even categorically stated, without any scientific proof or empirical evidence that, the majority of the people who died in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus in China died from 5G technology rather than the virus as reported. Although this commentary is not to address such myths and fake news which have the tendency to derail the progress being made by various governments to flatten the curve on the disease, it is important to state that, such claims are frivolous and has no scientific basis and must be treated with the contempt it deserves. Let’s continue to adhere to WHO protocols as well as advise from our various governments to save our own lives and that of our dear frontline healthcare providers.
Over the week, I have interacted with many friends on various social media platforms who have sought my opinion on this whole 5G brouhaha. This subject is very technical but will try my best for us all to understand the basic concepts and understanding of 5G.
What is 5G?
5G is the 5th Generation of wireless communication technologies that support cellular networks. In nutshell, the technology that enables us to communicate seamlessly using communication devices such as mobile phones. At present, many countries in the world including Ghana is on 4G. But like many technologies and applications, developed countries continue to dictate the path of technological advancement even when we have not fully embraced the exiting technologies.
In Ghana for instance, MTN is still rolling adverts for people to purchase their 4G SIM cards. While we are lagging behind, others are far ahead. In fact, China has inaugurated a team to begin research on 6G whilst the world is yet to fully embrace 5G. Technology is not waiting for anyone.
The Emergence of 5G has been an effort of many. The US NASA in 2008 developed 5G communications technology. The same year South Korea’s IT R&D program formed the 5G mobile communication systems for research purposes. The New York University, University of Surrey, the EU’s METIS project, Samsung electronics all contributed into research leading to emergence of 5G. Currently, many 5G devices are at the productization stage including the development of 5G Internet of Things (IoT) chipset arena. Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, is the first smart phone able to connect to 5G networks. Later versions Samsung Galaxy S20 and Nokia 8.3 are currently the world’s most advanced 5G mobile devices. 5G is expected to connect about 50 billion connected IoT devices.
Like new versions of technology, 5G brings to consumers better usage experience, convenience and much improved connectivity. The speed performance of 5G is enormous as compared to the current 4G. 5G speeds is in the less common millimeter wave spectrum, with its much more abundant bandwidth and shorter range, and hence greater frequency reusability, can be substantially higher. 5G speed will range from 50Mbits/s to over 2Gbits/s. What this means is that, it has the speed capacity to transmit 2gigabits of data within a second. 4G offers maximum real-world download speeds up to around 100Mbit/s, making it over 20 times faster than 3G. Consider the delivery speed of 5G and 4G to be two people travelling from Kumasi to Accra, one using VIP bus (4G) and other using Africa World Airline (5G).
At present, the following countries are either using 5G or have tested for the use of 5G; Australia, Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, San Marino, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom (UK), United States (US), Uruguay, Vietnam, and Qatar. Many of these countries are using 5G networks or have been granted the licence to test 5G.
Since time immemorial, acceptance and use of technology have faced opposition and strict resistance. The Hullabaloo surrounding 5G implementation is therefore not surprising. Many technology acceptance theories including technology acceptance model (TAM), Innovation diffusion theory (IDT), Theory of reasoned action (TRA), Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB), Unified theory of acceptance and use of technology (UTAUT), theory of perceived risk (TPR), the PC utilisation Model , expectance confirmatory theory , Hofstede’ cultural theory among many others have explained to us how acceptance and use of new technology are expected to prevail among consumers. The agitations and the much-publicised conspiracy theories lend credence to these theories and models.
Health and Safety Concerns
Scientifically, the consensus among the technology experts, as evidenced by the many scientific papers is that, 5G is safe. There is presently no scientific study that has proven the health hazards of 5G. However, speculation about possible hazards has given rise to concern being expressed in the media. These speculations are based on anecdotal utterances rather than scientific and empirical facts.
Misunderstanding of 5G technology has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories that claim it has an adverse effect on human health. Suffice it to say that, all electronic communication equipments produce some degree of effects on the environment and the human race. Like the emergence of 4G, many telecommunication masts were built and 3G masts were replaced. It is a well-known fact that the citing of telecommunication mast poses some degree of health concerns due to the radiation emission.
Our mobile phones also are made of substances that potentially can harm our health as well. However, no specific and peculiar hazard has been found to be associated with 5G aside these general issues that are often time considered in the citing and deployment of telecommunication infrastructures.
In 2017, 180 scientists from about 35 countries were the first to petition the EU to conduct investigation into the health hazards of 5G before its roll-out. Their petition however, stated no scientific fact to substantiate their opposition. Subsequently, Belgium stopped the trial of 5G over radiation laws. Similarly, Switzerland’s Environmental Protection Agency advised for the blockage of 5G roll-out, although the Swiss Telecommunications Association (ASUT) has said that studies have been unable to show that 5G frequencies have any health impact.
There have been a number of concerns over the spread of disinformation in the media and online regarding the potential health effects of 5G technology. Claims of 5G causing brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease have been intensified in recent times with no scientific basis or proofs. In the past week, several conspiracy theories circulating online posited a link between COVID-19 and 5G. This led to several phone masts in Birmingham and Liverpool being subject to arson attacks.
Cyber Security Threats
It will not be far-fetched for anyone to believe that vulnerabilities in 5G technologies could be exploited by cybercriminals for malicious gains. Like many technologies and applications, there are always loopholes that easily be exploited thereby exposing organisation’s network infrastructure to cyber-attacks. 5G technology could open ground for a new era of security threats.
These threats could emerge due to immature and insufficiently testing processes of the technology, the one that enables the movement and access of vastly higher quantities of data, and thus broadens attack surfaces. Countries and organisations intending to deploy 5G may have to engage in personalized and mixed security deployments against massive distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) attacks foreseen after 5G deployment. As already mentioned, 5G is expected to connect about 50billion connected IoT devices, this can raise the attack surface for these devices to a substantial scale, and the capacity for DDoS attacks, cryptojacking, and other cyber-attacks could boost proportionally.
Politics and the Opposition
Various agencies of the US have led the political opposition against 5G network. The spectrum used 5G is closer to remote sensing such as those used by weather and earth observation satellites. According to the US NASA, this spectrum could interfere with numerical weather prediction without controls. This will potentially affect weather forecast and reduce the accuracy by 30%.
The United States Navy has similar written to express concerns. The World Radiocommunication, World Meteorological Organisation, American Meteorological Society and European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts have all warn against possible interference of 5G with weather forecast. Subsequently, the International Telecommunication Union set -39 decibel watts (dBW) buffer for all 5G deployed telecommunication network to avert the possible interference with weather forecast.
Allegations of surveillance have been levelled against Chinese companies manufacturing 5G networks. Due to fears of potential espionage of users of Chinese equipment vendors, several countries (including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom as of early 2019) have taken actions to restrict or eliminate the use of Chinese equipment in their respective 5G networks.
Chinese vendors and the Chinese government have denied these claims. Globally, Chinese manufacturer, Huawei is the biggest manufacturer of 5G equipment’s. Nokia and Ericsson are the only European manufacturers of 5G equipment. This presupposes that, Huawei will potential be producing 5G equipment to most part of the world. Perhaps, these fears of industrial espionage and alleged gathering of intelligence by Chinse companies and the Chinese government through 5G technologies might have heightened the strict opposition and the request to delay the implementation of 5G networks.
What More Could We Do?
In the days ahead, each of us should choose to trust scientific data and technology experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. These conspiracy theories do nothing but project a situation of global disunity which affects many efforts towards implementing policies that have the tendencies to benefit the global world. We should choose facts over speculations, and we should embrace scientific data rather than conspiracy theories.
Richard Apau. The writer is a Cyber Security and Digital Forensics Expert. He is a PhD Computer Science Candidate and a Postgraduate Researcher at the Cyber Security Research Centre, University of Warwick, UK. He holds BSc Computer Science and M.Phil Computer Science degrees, as well as MSc Cyber Security and Management. Rich4u34@yahoo.com