Industry Perspective: Federal Agencies Can Strike a Balance Between 5G’s Risks and Benefits

By Felipe Fernandez

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with more than 60,000 employees. Some 20,000 of those employees are Border Patrol agents, responsible for thousands of miles of U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, U.S. shorelines and more than 300 ports.

It’s a big job, to say the least. One that agents must perform while chronically understaffed, according to officials. But what if technology could help shore up staffing shortages with “smart borders,” high-speed data processing and edge computing?

The federal government is on the cusp of 5G-driven transformation that, while aligned with broader modernization efforts, could fundamentally change operations at the edge. And that edge could be a U.S. port or border, a battlefield, disaster zone, or inspection locations across the country. Regardless of locale, 5G’s ability to transfer data and communications faster is a game-changer — and in some cases, a lifesaver.

Real-time visibility and real-time control of a remote system — say, drones that augment border security, or automated capabilities that accelerate health care services — can provide agencies with capabilities that heretofore required humans onsite, making decisions with comparatively limited information. With high-speed connectivity, sensor data can fast-track operational agility and decision-making. This compounds the effectiveness of the government’s field operators, improving situational awareness and alleviating delays and bottlenecks that mount amid poor or no connectivity.

More data, from streams of video and other sources, will create even greater demand on the agency’s networks. It’s a challenge CBP leadership alluded to in their 2021-2026 strategy, which outlines broader plans to increase situational awareness, integrate and analyze interagency data, and invest in tactical and operational mobility.

“We do want to increase our mobility position, take advantage of 5G for those edge devices that rely on wireless connectivity, [and get] the data in real time to our officers out in the field. Our strategy is to move as much of that computing power out to the device itself,” Christopher Wurst, CBP’s executive director for enterprise networks and technology support, said at a recent event. “What we can do to move some of that data processing out to the edge is definitely in our roadmap.”

But amid heightened supply chain concerns and high-profile cyberattacks, edge computing and 5G present new vulnerabilities and potential threats.

5G technology “represents a complete transformation of telecommunication networks, introducing a vast array of new connections, capabilities and services,” officials from the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency wrote in a recent joint threat analysis. “However, these developments also introduce significant risks that threaten national security, economic security, and impact other national and global interests. Given these threats, 5G networks will be an attractive target for criminals and foreign adversaries to exploit for valuable information and intelligence.”

A thriving internet-of-things no doubt looks like a goldmine in the eyes of a malicious actor. But potential dangers aren’t a reason to pass up opportunities to multiply forces by integrating and leveraging better communications, sensor data, intelligence and myriad other advancements. It would be like never crossing a street because a car might come.

While we can’t forego the technological advantage and resulting societal benefits just because there may be hazards, we also can’t go into 5G blindly. Agencies employing this capability must do so with a full understanding of potential dangers based on a thorough risk-benefit analysis. Armed with a risk-management approach and a comprehensive security stance, agencies can harness 5G to accelerate and amplify a range of critical missions.

That security stance might vary by department and mission, but effective strategies include tailored applications and policies, appropriate security controls, adequate tools and training, and effective standards that establish a foundation. From there, agencies can execute according to an agile framework employing evolving solutions — adjusting based on changing risk tolerance, emerging tools and technologies, shifting threats and other factors. A layered security fabric might not be impenetrable, but it makes it much tougher for the adversary.

Much like you can’t take an aspirin before knowing you’ll get a headache, you can’t eradicate every threat before moving forward. Amid continuing advances in 5G, protection capabilities will also progress. This is where public-private partnerships will be especially critical in moving the ball forward on capabilities and services that could revolutionize government operations.

5G will provide the speed for the United States to confidently deploy cutting-edge tools like automation and remote capabilities. In turn, the data gleaned in the process of those deployments will further advance and refine the tools in the nation’s arsenal. When combined with industry partnerships, this process of continuous improvement can expand in both breadth and depth — more efficiently and more effectively enhancing detection and response to anomalies in human health or network health, in geopolitics or in geological events, in technological systems or in countless other kinds of systems.

In a landscape that continues to gain momentum, partnerships that mutually benefit from cooperative research, development, innovation, acceleration and deployment will maximize 5G’s impact across sectors. From national security to critical infrastructure to agriculture to technology to health care and many areas in between, we all benefit from these burgeoning capabilities. Whether public sector, private sector or private citizen, we all have skin in this game.

Felipe Fernandez is director of systems engineering at Fortinet Federal. He previously served for more than a decade as a cybersecurity engineer for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Topics: Battlefield Communications

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