With 5G networks planned around the world, many nations are wary of using Chinese technology for the rollouts, specifically gear manufactured by China's Huawei Technologies, the world's largest maker of mobile network.
The Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have banned Huawei from being involved in their 5G networks, citing security concerns and Huawei's ties to the Chinese government. The U.S. has also threatened to boycott countries that adopt Huawei Technologies systems.
Dr Reuben Ng, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), said the furore over Huawei's technology, and the suggestion that some kind of security "back door" could be introduced to 5G networks via the company's technology, showed that regulation wasn't keeping pace with technological advancements.
The U.S. is leading the anti-Huawei charge. "We have serious concerns over Huawei's obligations to the Chinese government and the danger that poses to the integrity of telecommunications networks in the U.S. and elsewhere," Bill Evanina, head of America's National Counterintelligence and Security Centre has said, according to a BBC report.
Hopes and fears
5G technology, which is already being tested around the world, promises faster download speeds, more options for augmented reality apps, and a full realisation of the Internet of Things (IoT), which could lead to driverless cars, smart street lighting and networked homes.
So far, Asia appears to be leading the 5G race. London-based tech sector analysis firm Juniper Research found that communication operators in Japan and South Korea were the clear leaders in the development of 5G, and forecast that 43% of global 5G connections will be located in these two countries in 2019.
In February, Singtel engineers in Singapore made a 5G video call to Optus engineers in Australia, using equipment from Chinese phone manufacturer Oppo.
"There's a lot of hope around 5G," Professor Ng said, while acknowledging there was also a lot of fear and suspicion.
Professor Ng suggested tech regulation could be improved through an industry body or a whistleblowing platform.
"There needs to be measures in place to address any bad intentions before they translate into something bad happening," he said. "There's no clear channel or avenue for whistleblowing now. It's very difficult to whistleblow within a company. And it's also very, very hard (for the employees) to say no."
Professor Ng said the international whistleblowing platform could take the form of an industry body, similar to the bar associations and medical boards that oversee the legal and medical fields in their respective countries. Such an organisation would provide an avenue for the people nearest the new technology, the engineers and data scientists, to report any instances where they were being asked to use or develop technology "for malicious purposes" Specifically, Singapore could work with IEEE—the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology with 420,000 members—to set up this platform. .
"Someone has to stand up to provide this international platform," he said. "It's quite critical and it's not being done now. Though whistleblowing is hard, a platform makes it easier to report anonymously"
Opportunities for the industry
The gap in technology governance was an opportunity for a country such as Singapore, which has a "Smart Nation" vision, to lead the way, Dr Ng said.
"A prospective Singapore-IEEE collaboration could be seen as “policy sandbox” to experiment different policy responses to emerging technologies and business models. Singapore is the right place to pioneer this initiative given her trustworthiness and reputation on the world stage. Essentially, Singapore can be the hub for innovative policy responses to new technology and business models. Over time, Singapore can aspire to the international arbitration center for privacy and technology cases, and lead the region in crafting guidelines and frameworks," he said.
There was also scope for regional blocs, such as the European Union or ASEAN, to lead the way in the field of data regulation by setting up a regulatory framework for the sector.
However, a whistleblower system would be difficult to implement in the tech sector.
"Whistleblowing, although socially desirable, requires resistance against conformity to the group," said You Na Lee, Assistant Professor at LKYSPP, "It is hard to expect an engineer in Huawei to be a whisteblower."
Compounding the issue of whistleblowing is the sheer complexity of 5G technology. In late March, the UK's Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board criticised the Chinese company for security flaws in its mobile network equipment, saying it had found “serious and systematic defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security competence”.
Professor Lee said each country would have to create its own technology regulations.
"As China has emphasised cyber sovereignty and built the Great Firewall and Great Cannon as their national policy, now Huawei can respect other countries’ national policy," she said.
Professor Lee said Huawei itself would benefit from adhering to each country's tech regulations.
"First, meeting the technical standards will improve their technology and hence provide early occupancy of the emerging market as a first mover," she said, citing the example of strict environmental standards that pushed car makers to produce cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
"In the same way, meeting the technical standards (of one country) will help Huawei improve their technology and be ready for any other markets that may have standards as strict as or less strict than the existing standards," she said. "Secondly, security standards can mitigate the concerns of national security for the hosting country and provide a chance for Huawei to come clean regarding the concerns about the nefarious uses of their technology."
Professor Lee also said if Huawei failed to meet a country's security standards, that would create opportunities for the company's competitors to step in.
It remains to be seen whether the benefits of introducing 5G will outweigh the security risks. "The answer will be different for different participants," she said. "Individuals have their own choice: whether they want to be more or less connected in the era of connectivity.
However, what is clear is that the introduction of 5G will lead to an era of "collective innovativeness, where we will build on each other", she said. "We can easily lose our information but also easily gain other’s information."
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