FCC Chair: 5G Expansion Creates ‘Broader Attack Surface’ for Cyberattacks

The Federal Communications Commission’s chair gave a speech Tuesday that, in part, could have come from her counterparts at the State Department or the National Security Agency. 

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—a defense-minded think tank that itself represented an unusual setting for the government’s chief telecom regulator—FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel warned of a range of risks to privacy and security as the world moves to 5G.

“The United States and authoritarian regimes have different views on how to use 5G technology,” Rosenworcel said. 

Citing the International Telecommunications Union’s recent election(Opens in a new window) of the US candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, as its next secretary general over Russian nominee Rashid Ismailov, the FCC chair said the choice of priorities at that United Nations agency will matter: “It will inform how networks are deployed and evolve around the world.”

But Rosenworcel used most of her roughly 22-minute speech(Opens in a new window) outlining recent and upcoming choices at the FCC’s Washington office. 

“Closer to home, the deployment of these networks also involves big security challenges,” she said. “Because the truth is that 5G networks connecting so much more in our lives will mean a broader attack surface for cyber events.” 

Rosenworcel then ticked off a series of actions under way at the FCC: 

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  • Improving coordination with other agencies on the security of critical infrastructure and updating an FCC-State Department process to approve licenses for undersea cables.

  • Adding certain foreign firms—mostly such Chinese telecom firms as Huawei, ZTE, China Telecom and Pacific Networks, but also the Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab—to the Covered List(Opens in a new window) created under a 2019 law.

  • Launching a program for US telecom providers to remove and replace network gear purchased from Huawei and ZTE, backed with $1.9 billion in government funding.

  • Supporting the development of open radio access networks (Open RAN) to replace those systems, to be backed with $1.5 billion in funding from last year’s CHIPS and Science Act

  • Using authority under a separate 2021 law to ban the import and sale of telecom and video-surveillance hardware from Huawei and ZTE, with lesser limits on that gear from three other Chinese firms.

  • Addressing longstanding concerns over the integrity of the Emergency Alert System by imposing new cybersecurity requirements on participants in that system.

  • Updating old rules about data-breach disclosures by telecom carriers and foreign ownership of them.

Much of this work is ongoing and, in the case of the “rip-and-replace” program, massively underfunded. Rosenworcel reminded her audience of that on Tuesday, and renewed past requests for Congress to remedy that multi-billion-dollar shortfall. Also on her to-do list for Congress: renewing the FCC’s authorization to free up and auction off spectrum so that carriers can expand 5G service.

Rosenworcel did not, however, mention one other Congressional action that would help address the privacy risks she noted earlier: passing meaningful privacy legislation that would leave less personal data at risk of being resold by brokers that have exhibited few hangups about who buys it and where around the world that information winds up.

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