Wi-Fi networks are on the cusp of a step-change improvement in speed and bandwidth. This will make previously-impossible technological intrusions (like multi-gig-per-second data transmission) feasible. Government involvement in the oversight of these new networks may increase consumers’ anxiety. Society should welcome this change, but perspectives on the boundaries between private and public formed in the era of 4G need to be updated.
The mobile networks in developed nations have been sufficient to support substantial progress toward connecting people and things to each other. However, these networks were built primarily to support voice communication and other standard applications like email and web surfing. Due to a variety of technical challenges, they are struggling to meet the demands of more demanding applications like augmented reality (AR), autonomous vehicles, and always-on HD video streaming. To address these concerns, private telecoms firms in the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea have been racing fervently to build out so-called fifth-generation (“5G”) network architectures.
If / when they are successful, 5G will fundamentally change the relationship private individuals have with technology and the ubiquity of computing in society. The promise of 5G is that mobile communication networks will be able to tolerate much larger transfer volumes with lower latency. This will make possible some transfers which were previously prohibitively costly or slow. According to an article from DMV.org, modern automobiles may be able to continuously transmit information about your location, identity (e.g. fingerprints, facial images), and even your health (such as your heart rate and posture). Most connected devices do not have the storage capacity locally to keep long time series of all that information, but the latency and throughput guarantees provided by 5G would allow it to be streamed out to a persistent data store where it could be used to build a more detailed profile and possibly be joined with other information about the device or individual(s) interacting with it.
In light of the new data transfers that will be possible, private individuals need to consider the new context within which they will be asked to make disclosure choices. In general, more consideration will need to be given to longitudinal data and what can be learned from it. For example, disclosing “location” in the 4G world may (for some applications / devices) just mean that you are consenting to the existence of a real-time endpoint that holds your information and can be used to trigger events like location-based ads. However, disclosing “location” in the 5G world may carry more weight, as it may imply consenting to the disclosure of time-series data which could be used to derive other information like patterns of behavior.
To complicate things further, it is possible that in the United States 5G may become a government-run public utility. A few days ago, the Trump Administration floated the possibility of a nationalized 5G wireless communication network. Today’s modern communication infrastructure is dominated by a handful of private firms and improvements in the infrastructure is largely driven by competitive forces. In an internal memo obtained by Axios, the administration cited national security concerns as the main reason it is considering subverting this competitive process. By some accounts, China’s Huawei Technologies is leading the 5G race in the private sector, and the Trump administration is worried about the national security implications of having a critical part of the U.S. communication infrastructure controlled by a foreign firm. If the federal government builds and maintains the network infrastructure, it may make it easier for government agencies to access the data traveling over it.
To be clear, the intention of this post is not to convince readers that the 5G-pocalypse is coming and that we should fear its might. The promised improvements to mobile networks will open new opportunities for creativity to flourish, for individuals to connect, and for the reliability and effectiveness of institutions and infrastructure to improve. This post merely serves to raise the concern that 5G will alter the context in which individuals make data privacy decisions.
- “Trump team considers nationalizing 5G network”. (Axios)
- “How Huawei is leading 5G development”. (Forbes)
- “5G Network Architecture, A High-Level Overview”. (Huawei)
- “1 billion could be using 5G by 2023 with China set to dominate”. (CNBC)
- “Autonomous cars, big data, and the post-privacy world”. (DMV.org)
- “Next-generation 5G speeds will be about 10 to 20 Gbps”. (Network World)