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RSA 2020: US needs allies to battle China's 5G threat

Experts at RSA 2020 said the United States and its allies have to solve trade disputes and combine resources to secure global 5G infrastructure against Chinese threats.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The United States and its allies have to mix government regulations with private industry cooperation to counter the security risks China presents in the global 5G market.

That was the conclusion of cybersecurity experts who studied the threat Chinese tech companies posed if their growing market clout was left unchecked. In the worst-case scenario, China could, for political reasons, order 5G gear-makers Huawei and ZTE to provide access to data flowing over the global telecommunications network.

"[Chinese officials] are very aggressive … when they don't like what somebody is doing," said Michael Chertoff, former secretary of U.S. Homeland Security.

Michael ChertoffMichael Chertoff

Chertoff was one of three members of the Trilateral Cyber Security Commission who participated in a panel discussion this week at the RSA 2020 security conference. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA formed the commission to recommend coordinated cybersecurity policies and actions to benefit the United States, Japan and European allies.

Chertoff and his fellow Trilateral commission members believe Chinese companies will remain a competitive force globally. Huawei, which leads the global 5G market today, was particularly successful in selling its gear to the United Kingdom and European countries.

"There will be Huawei equipment across the West," Art Coviello, a Trilateral commissioner and the former CEO of RSA Security, said. "It's likely to be inevitable."

There will be Huawei equipment across the West. It's likely to be inevitable.
Art CovielloFormer CEO of RSA Security and a member of the Trilateral Cyber Security Commission

To deal with the security risk, the Trilateral commission recommended in December that allied governments establish a mechanism for reviewing equipment purchased by telecom carriers. The two-prong process would include 1) determining the likelihood of a supplier being compromised by a hostile government, and 2) evaluating the equipment for security features deemed adequate against hacking.

Governments committed to the evaluation process would agree to bar carriers from deploying devices that did not meet established standards.

Public funding for 5G development

The commission recommended that Western governments and Japan fund basic research in critical 5G technology that was not taking place in the private sector. The public funding would counter the subsidies China provides its local companies.

The group also proposed the establishment of a 5G International Security Council. The 5G ISC would be responsible for coordinating the security and trade policies of member states.

Trilateral commissioner Dennis C. Blair, the former director of U.S. National Intelligence, said a free market-only approach would be insufficient for security. That's because companies would place a higher priority on profiting from a 5G market expected to grow 97% a year through 2025 to $251 billion.

"There will be this rush to market, and, as we continue on that path, the important security measures will lag until there's a big crisis," Blair said. "We'd like to get out ahead of that."

However, to reach the necessary level of cross-country cooperation, the Trump administration would have to reduce current tensions with European allies. Most of the soured relations are due to the administration's use of tariffs to force concessions in trade negotiations.

That tactic and other America-first policies from the administration are "undermining our ability to convince our allies to support a diplomatic initiative around 5G," Blair said.

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