Opinion post by
Tristan Rayner

5G is the first stage of technology that might be capable of delivering a 1984 existence, where the powerful can monitor and control us.

This isn’t a call for tinfoil hats. This isn’t the regular old despair at new technologies disrupting our lives, taking our jobs, and making everything (including those 737s) worse.

This is about the realization that what 5G technology enables has consequences, both intended, and unintended.

5G will be useful for us in many ways, smoothing out friction in our lives as more devices become smart. Homes will respond to us better. Experiences will change as low latencies bear out new ideas and concepts, and virtual worlds become more enticing. Of course, this will take longer than what is popularly believed. I still have to pronounce things carefully to my Google Home, which is still a very long way from true AI. Siri’s most likely response is “Sorry, I can’t do that.”

It sounds far-fetched. But Jeff Bezos might tell you it isn’t. We can be watched.

But 5G opens ourselves up to the corporations that provide the hardware and services, and governments will increasingly be able to monitor our activity much more closely. It sounds far-fetched, but consider Jeff Bezos’s team believes Saudi Arabia hacked his phone. If true – and the credibility of those making the claim is very high – a sophisticated, targeted, and difficult attack by a nation state resulted in a serious compromise of personal privacy.

We can be watched.

Looking far beyond the obvious: Huawei

Huawei is the current representation of corporations and/or governments coming together to spy on us. The Huawei machinations change almost daily – now at the stage where Huawei is suing the United State of America in Federal Court. But Huawei is too often made out to be the great enemy. Focusing on Huawei means losing sight of the real problem.

5G’s promises and risks go much further than a single company protesting its innocence, and more towards nation-state activity. As Andre Nikiforuk recently explored in The Tyee in a wide-ranging piece with historical notes, technologies have helped forge empires. The dominant empires spread those technologies, using their efficiencies to rapidly overcome other societies. Nikiforuk leans on Jacque Ellul, a French historian and radical in the 1950s, who claimed that technology, “threatened the very existence of civilization as it became a self-directing, autonomous and totalitarian force in human affairs,” and that technology threatened our very freedom.

Ellul’s words, 70 years or so later, have kernels of truth, and Nikiforuk draws a line between 5G technology and China. It is not incorrect to point out that China has employed technology to monitor and control its citizens. Widespread surveillance led to the country’s dystopian no-fly “social credit” score system.

“…keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.”

In 2014, the Chinese government said the aim was to “broadly shape a thick atmosphere in the entire society that keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.” Others have called it a “human rights issue.”

Regardless, the point is made that with 5G, China’s and other states’ monitoring efforts will be made far easier. 5G will allow for more devices to be connected as part of the Internet of Things (IoT), with undoubtedly varying levels of security. Security threat vectors will be larger than at any point previous, posing risks to data from persons and corporations.

Understanding these threats needs to come from a place of pessimism and relative insecurity. Many meekly protest that nothing bad happens to those who do good: “I have nothing to hide,” they cry. But these are the same people that do not see the mire that befalls them until it’s too late.

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Consider that Mark Zuckerberg covers up his laptop webcam and has for years, while recent scam sextortion attempts claiming to have “watched you” through your laptop camera resulted in wringing out more than a million dollars from the gullible and worried.

Mark Zuckerberg covers up his laptop webcam

But more so are the quieter, more devious methods being applied behind your back. Already, companies gather data such as the grammar and punctuation of your text messages, and the battery level on your phone, to determine creditworthiness. Do you plan ahead? A constant eight percent battery life might suggest not. It’s happening.

How will society’s changing opinions on what is considered acceptable affect your digitized life? It’s happening.

I could go on.

Stifling humanity

I might be so bold as to suggest that life isn’t meant to be lived on the straight and narrow. Not to suggest a life of crime is to be encouraged, but many rule-breakers in our history broke the shackles to change our worlds for the better. Second chances are important.

How many great things in our world happened when rising from the ashes of failure, from accidents, from tough lessons in life, or chance encounters. Henry Ford’s first two companies had terrible financial trouble and had to file for bankruptcy before the successful Ford Motor Company was founded. Would a system that follows your every move, and punishes your mistakes, allow a life to flourish in a way in which people can learn from mistakes? Would a credit system that can’t tolerate bankruptcy encourage startups?

Conveniences that arise will come with insecurities, bugs, data leaks, and consequences big and small.

Nikiforuk demands we call 5G technology what it will make possible: “technology-enhanced authoritarian control with global consequences.” I want to write that seems like a stretch. Without doubt, it is too easy to call a pox on 5G. It represents just a new and faster protocol, in absolute technical terms.

What’s really being said is that 5G precipitates more of a connected lifestyle, one that we don’t fully foresee today. And conveniences that arise will come with insecurities, bugs, data leaks, and consequences big and small. That is assured.

Will it embolden authority to go further to “broadly shape” a society as it deems fit?

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Author: Tristan Rayner