5G rollout riddled with threats, spy chief warns

October 30, 2018

The rollout of Australia’s 5G telco network, which is expected to supercharge the so-called “internet of things” and make emerging technologies such as driverless cars viable, poses unprecedented security risks, Australia’s top cyber spy has warned.

Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi has called on the Morrison government to launch a royal commission into Chinese influence in Australia but the government has refused.

The Australian reports, in a headland speech delivered in Canberra last night, Australian Signals Directorate director-­general Mike Burgess offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of his agency, which along with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service is responsible for the bulk of Australia’s overseas intelligence collection.

In a veiled reference to the emerging economic might of China, Mr Burgess said strategic and economic power was shifting east. This meant that the industrial base Australia and other countries relied on to build its critical assets, such as telco networks, was also shifting.

“We will need to be open-eyed on the potential threats that any significant change of this kind poses to Australia’s most important interests,” Mr Burgess said, adding that when it arrived, the 5G network would be “at the top of every country’s list of critical ­national infrastructure”.

“5G technology will underpin the communications that Australians rely on every day, from our health systems and the potential applications of remote surgery, to self-driving cars and through to the operation of our power and water supply,” Mr Burgess said. “The stakes could not be higher.”

Due to the rollout’s sensitive nature, the federal government made a decision to ban so-called high-risk vendors from building the network, a move widely interpreted as being aimed at Chinese state-owned telco Huawei.

Mr Burgess said that unlike other telco infrastructure, the 5G network could not be protected by keeping high-risk vendors at the periphery of the network, hence the decision to ban all suspect ­providers.

His speech was a rare public foray into the debate around cyber security and espionage. But in an effort to build public trust, as well as a recognition that its work in warding off cyber threats had taken it out of the rarefied world of signals intelligence and into the mainstream digital economy, Mr Burgess said the time had come for ASD to move “out of the shadows” and provide greater transparency.

India has recently followed Australia's lead in excluding Huawei from its 5G rollout, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not shown such caution.

In June this year, the ABC revealed that Huawei had become the biggest corporate sponsor of overseas travel with 12 trips taken by Australian federal politicians visiting Huawei's headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

The trips involved business class flights, domestic travel, free accommodation and meals.

The politicians named include then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Bronwyn Bishop, Alex Hawke and Steve Ciobo

Last month, Senator Bernardi told the Senate of the urgency of calling a royal commission into Chinese Communist Government influence in Australia.

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