It seems that with each passing day we hear more and more about 5G wireless service. Telecommunications companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are expanding their networks, and phone manufacturers are coming out with 5G-equipped devices all the time. This is very much the future.
However, while 5G has lots of benefits and promises to make our lives easier and more connected, there are some concerns about what it means for privacy and security.
On the one hand, the 5G rollout may make things more secure. But many, including more than two-thirds of those interviewed for an Accenture study on the topic, see security and privacy as the biggest concerns we must address as 5G takes on a larger role in our lives.
Of course, every new technology comes with its own set of advantages and risks. Just because 5G has some risks doesn’t mean this is an inherently bad thing. But since the rollout is upon us and is not going to slow down anytime soon, it’s important you understand the risks and take the proper steps to protect yourself and your privacy.
To help you stay safe as this technology spreads throughout society, here’s everything you need to know about how the 5G rollout will impact privacy.
Understand the Link Between Phone Privacy and Security
While our focus is on privacy, it’s important to remember that this is really a matter of security. Privacy refers to our ability to do as we please without worrying about anyone watching. But in today’s digital age, it also means protecting our personal data so that it can’t get used against us.
In this sense, any loss of privacy is also a loss of security. If someone can know what you’re doing on your phone, or where you are, they can use this information against you, or they can steal from you.
Some of the most common forms of cybercrime that are present with smartphones, and related to privacy, include:
- Malware – This is software that gets downloaded onto your phone without you knowing. It’s an invasion of your privacy, but once on your phone, it’s also a security threat: it can be used to steal personal data or spy on your activity. Versions of malware include ransomware and spyware.
- Phishing and SMSishing – Ever get a message from someone claiming to be a relative or a friend, or a representative of a company you associate with, asking you to provide them with information such as login details or a credit card number, or assistance, usually in the form of cash? This is called phishing, and it’s one of the most common forms of cybercrime. Essentially, hackers send out unsolicited messages, usually via email, hoping to trick people into handing them the information they seek. Again, receiving these messages is an invasion of your private world, but they are also a security threat. In fact, phishing is the most effective form of hacking. SMSishing is the same thing but it comes through in text messages.
- Malicious apps – Our phones are as useful and convenient as they are because of the apps we install on them. In general, this is fine. But some apps, particularly those downloaded from third-party sources, can wreak havoc on your phone. The most common thing they will do is stay active in the background, tracking your activity and sending it to someone who wants it. In some cases, though, they will directly steal stuff off your phone. As you can see, this is not only an unwanted intrusion but also a huge threat to your digital security.
As you can see, privacy and security really go hand in hand. For many, the desire to protect privacy is really a moral issue more than anything else. But when viewed from this lens, it’s clear that it’s a much bigger problem: sacrificing privacy can lead to loss of your personal
property, your identity, and, perhaps most importantly, your peace of mind.
What is 5G?
To be able to understand the threats that 5G poses to your personal privacy and security, it’s important to understand what this technology is, what it can do, and what it can’t do.
For the many who don’t know, 5G simply refers to the “fifth generation” of wireless networks developed and implemented by the telecommunications industry. It is the immediate successor to our current network, 4G LTE, which replaced 3G. Before 3G, we had, shocking, 2G, 1G, and 0G. It wasn’t until 3G, though, that phones could start connecting to the internet.
At the moment, access to 5G is limited. It is currently only available in major cities. Everyone else is still using 4G, which can be found pretty much across the country. Soon, though, this will change and 5G will be the standard.
Applications of 5G
There are many promising applications of this technology. One example is self-driving cars.
Currently, the technology exists for cars to operate themselves, but it’s too dangerous for them to do so on actual roads because they are not able to communicate with other vehicles.
They will soon be able to do this, however, thanks to 5G, which will allow more devices to connect, meaning cars can come equipped with network capabilities so they can talk with one another and avoid traffic accidents.
Health care is another field where 5G promises to make big changes. Using 5G, medical devices can connect with one another and provide more up-to-the-minute results, and also help coordinate resources and keep patients informed. 5G also promises to make cloud computing more powerful, as well as facilitate the introduction of automated and virtual reality.
Benefits of 5G
The applications of 5G suggest this is a positive technology. And it is, but for many different reasons. Some of the primary benefits of 5G include:
- Faster speeds – The biggest selling point of 5G is that it is faster than 4G. Using 5G, in an area where there is good signal and not too many users, 5G can reach download speeds of up to 1 Gbps, which means you will be able to download a full-length HD movie in just about a minute.
- Greater bandwidth – Ever notice how your wireless internet connection slows down when you’re in a big city or in an area with lots of people? That happens because the network’s bandwidth gets overloaded. 5G networks use a different infrastructure that will make this less likely, meaning more devices can connect at one time.
- Increased latency – Latency refers to how much data can be processed at one time. It’s important for real-time uses such as gaming and video calling. On current 4G networks, latency issues make both of these activities difficult. But with 5G, improved latency will make it more than possible to do these activities on your phone.
There are many technical reasons why 5G networks will be able to provide these improvements, but the most relevant for privacy and security purposes is that 5G networks use more towers and lower band frequencies.
We’ll discuss this further in a moment, but the important thing to remember is that, while this improves performance, it also opens up the network to more attack points.
Drawbacks of 5G
Every new technology comes with its own set of drawbacks; nothing is perfect, and there will always be shortcomings. Some of the main drawbacks of 5G are:
- Smaller range and less penetration – Because 5G makes use of smaller band frequencies to transmit data, you need to be close to a tower to get a signal. And if you’re inside a building, the connection is unlikely to reach. This problem is solved by installing signal boosters, which are effective but that once again open more access points to hackers.
- Infrastructure – Switching to 5G requires building a whole new telecommunications infrastructure. This is not necessarily a problem, but it will delay the rollout. And newer installations are always more vulnerable to attack since we don’t yet know all of their weaknesses, leaving us vulnerable in the early stages of this transition.
- Devices – Currently, there are only a handful of 5G devices on the market. As the rollout continues, this will change. But until then, all this means is that hackers will have fewer things to focus on when they devise their attack strategies.
How 5G Will Impact Your Phone’s Privacy
Now that you have a better understanding of what 5G is, how it will be used, and what its benefits and drawbacks are, you should be able to take a guess at some of the privacy issues that naturally come with this technology. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Bigger Incentives for Hackers
Although some hackers do their dirty work just for fun, most of them work on incentives. In other words, money. They are trying to gain access to accounts and information that they can either use to steal from you or that they can sell to someone else who is going to try and steal from you.
For most of the time we’ve had smartphones, hackers haven’t really bothered to try and break into them.
First, there weren’t enough of them to make it worth their while. That is no longer the case, but for some time they didn’t bother because there still wasn’t that much on the phones that they wanted. But now that smartphones have become so integrated into our lives, the incentive is greater than ever. If hackers manage to get into our phones, they can get our bank and credit card information, known contacts, browsing history, addresses, phone numbers, and pretty much everything else about our lives.
With 5G, these incentives will only grow. The new network will allow a great many new things to connect to the internet, and these will likely come with apps. As we know, apps aren’t always to be trusted, so more of them means more chances to lose your privacy.
In addition, with 5G allowing us to do more and more with our mobile broadband connections, more of our lives will move onto our phones. This means there will be more information available on them for hackers to try and access.
All in all, while 5G offers to give us a lot, these benefits then become incentives for hackers, putting our phone privacy and security at risk.
Increased Access Points
One of the biggest things 5G will change is that it will allow for more devices than ever to be connected to the internet. Cars, appliances, gadgets, lights, doors. The list goes on. The smart home revolution is upon us.
While tremendously convenient, and also a bit futuristic, this does pose considerable risks. This is because each and every device that is connected to the internet is vulnerable to attack. And if these devices are also connected to your phone, this creates a whole new set of access points for hackers to use to get to your personal information.
What makes this particularly concerning is that there are few standards for these devices that will soon come equipped with internet connectivity.
At the moment, the devices that can access the internet are designed to do so, which means
manufacturers are spending time and energy making sure they are protected. But are appliance makers equally as equipped to produce products that are safe and secure? In the beginning, this is unlikely, especially as manufacturers rush to get new products to market.
Therefore, as the 5G rollout takes place, be careful about which products you purchase. They will all likely provide direct access to your phone, and so getting something with subpar standards is going to hurt you in the long run. The best thing to do is to wait a few years for these companies to figure out how they are going to protect the devices they are creating.
More Data Will Be Created
Even with 4G, we use our phones a lot. And for everything. In fact, the average person spends around five hours per day on their phone.
As you probably know, when we do this, we are generating data about our lives. Phone companies, as well as the many apps we use, are constantly keeping tabs on what we’re doing, what we’re saying, where we’re going, and more, all as an effort to learn more about us so that they can create more targeted advertisements designed to sell us more stuff.
With the 5G rollout, this is only going to intensify. More and more stuff will be online, communicating with our phones through apps, meaning there will be even more data to collect.
To give you an example, consider location tracking. Currently, it only works when you have GPS
turned on or when you’re using a navigation tool such as Waze or Google
However, once 5G makes self-driving cars more possible, these vehicles will be constantly transmitting your location data no matter if you have an app turned on or not. They must in order to function.
This is the trade-off of welcoming this technology into our lives. But it is a risk to our security and privacy, and so it’s something we must be aware of as the 5G rollout continues.
More Precise Location Data
Proponents of more digital privacy often point to location tracking as a prime example of how our privacy has been fully invaded during the digital age. Those who are a bit more into conspiracy theories think this technology can be used by the government to control us more. But even if you don’t buy into this line of thinking, you must admit that giving up our location information is indeed an invasion of our privacy.
Well, when 5G rolls out, things are only going to get worse. Not only will there be more things connected to your phone that can give your location data, but your phone will be able to more accurately describe your location. This is because for 5G to work there will need to be a lot more cell towers.
Currently, devices determine your location by triangulating your position relative to the three closest towers. They can do a pretty good job, but they can’t be that accurate since these
towers are usually far away. However, with 5G, there will be more towers and they will be closer, allowing your device to pinpoint your location down to just a few feet.
How do you feel about your device knowing if you’re in your bedroom or kitchen? Some don’t care. Others are terrified.
What the Wireless Industry is Doing to Protect Your Privacy
Despite all that 5G has to offer us, it’s clear that it also comes with some considerable risks to privacy and security. But telecommunications companies know this, and they are taking steps to ensure that your privacy is protected as 5G rolls out and becomes more common.
Some of the things being done are:
- IMSI encryption – Every mobile device comes with a unique identifier known as an IMSI. As 5G rolls out, device manufacturers are going to be encrypting this, meaning no one can access it unless they have the appropriate key. This will dramatically reduce the number of people who might be able to access your device. However, considering privacy is already a concern with 4G, it’s worth wondering why they haven’t already done this.
- Increased reliance on the cloud – Currently, most of the software that makes our phones and networks work is stored on hardware. This is difficult to change and update, which makes it more vulnerable to attack. As the 5G rollout continues, more and more of this software is going to be stored on the cloud, which means it can be changed and updated more easily, which means we can react to threats more quickly and mitigate the damage they might do.
- Mobile Connect – One of the telecommunications industry standard groups, GSMA, is developing a program called Mobile Connect that will allow users to log in to everything on their phone using one secure account. By putting everything into one place, and then putting extra effort into securing it, it will be harder for hackers to get into your device and steal the data it’s got stored.
- Network Slicing – a feature of 5G that has people excited, and that promises to make it more secure, is network slicing. This basically means that 5G networks can be subdivided into smaller networks that are easier to secure. One area where this will be used most is healthcare, an industry that collects a lot of sensitive data about people. Individual healthcare groups will be able to create their own networks for their devices, allowing them to make use of the increased connectivity it offers while also keeping users secure
How You Can Protect Your Privacy
The telecommunications companies are doing a lot to make sure your phone stays private and secure during the 5G rollout, but there are things you can do too that will keep unwanted eyes and ears away from your data.
These tips are actually things you should be doing now. But if you’re not, consider starting right away so that you can be fully prepared for the 5G rollout.
Here’s how you can protect your privacy:
- Make and use a strong PIN that is more than four numbers and hard to guess.
- Use security features such as biometric login (Face ID) and two-factor authentication.
- Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth when not in use to prevent accidentally connecting to a network or device that might do you harm.
- Keep your phone up-to-date by installing updates as they become available. This is annoying but it’s also 100 percent necessary for protecting your phone.
- Avoid connecting to public WiFi networks or use a virtual private network (VPN) when you do.
- Download wiping software so that you can delete the data off your phone should it fall into the wrong hands.
- Log out of apps when not using them, or install an encryption tool that will keep your passwords and data secure.
Embrace 5G But Use Caution
As with any new technology, 5G has a lot of promise, but it also comes with risks. Therefore, the fact that it could threaten our privacy should not be taken as a sign that this technology will not be useful. Instead, it’s just a reminder that we must embrace these new tools with caution.
Luckily, telecommunications companies and device manufacturers recognize these risks, and it’s in their best interest to keep you secure (if they let you get hacked and you find out, you’ll
ditch them in two seconds.) Plus, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe that are independent of what the major companies involved are doing.
So, while we should be cautious, if we’re also patient and vigilant, we should be able to embrace 5G without sacrificing too much of our own personal privacy and security.