Eric Puype is an expert witness and litigation consultant for VREF. He is a decorated combat veteran with over 20 years of physical and cybersecurity experience working with the government and private sector, and he holds a CPP and PCI with ASIS International. Eric is a licensed attorney and an active member of the Idaho State Bar.

Undoubtedly everyone has heard of Fifth Generation Mobile Network (5G) technology, but most do not know what this technology is and how it will impact our future. Moreover, those that do understand 5G technology may not be fully aware of its vulnerabilities and the potential consequences to information security, airport ground operations, security checkpoints, runway monitoring, and airport infrastructure management.

This is not to say we should fear 5G technology, but rather as we embrace the benefits of its dramatically higher bandwidth and greater speeds, we also recognize the vulnerabilities that could impact aviation operations. 5G networks are already being built off the existing 4G infrastructure and as the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices leverage this Network, 5G will not just be an improvement on how we leverage digital communication but a requirement.[1],[2]

What Is 5G and Why Is It Needed?

5G is the next evolution in telecommunication networks and will revolutionize the way we process and transmit data to allow the increasing amount of IoT devices and emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and remote medical procedures. At the most basic level, 5G opens up the wireless spectrum to include low, middle, and high frequencies currently leveraged by the 4G Network. This means the 5G Network will be able to use previously unlicensed frequency bands to improve bandwidth to deliver larger data capacity and lower latency to provide higher speeds of processing and transmission of data.[3]

To give you an example, the current 4G Network has a maximum bandwidth of 100 megabytes per second with a latency of fewer than 100 milliseconds (MS). However, a 5G network is estimated to provide 20 gigabytes per second and a latency of fewer than five milliseconds.[4],[5],[6] This improvement in bandwidth and speed will not only dramatically improve the capability of existing IoT devices and allow for emerging technology to be realized, but it also will allow for reliability and scalability unconceivable with previous generations of telecommunication network technologies.[1] This evolution will inevitably impact all facets of aviation from in-flight entertainment and communications to all aspects of airport operations.

While 5G technology is guaranteed to be a game-changer, it will not happen overnight. In the United States, 5G networks and technologies are in development with a limited rollout in selected cities on a limited scale. While the 5G Network will leverage the existing 4G infrastructure, providers will need to build new physical architecture with components integrated into traditional macro cellular towers and non-traditional microcell and miniature cell towers. Thus, by most estimates, a standalone widespread 5G network will not be available until at least 2022.[2] While this means the full benefits of 5G will not be realized for years to come, it also means that the aviation industry has this short period of time to understand better and implement protective measures to mitigate these vulnerabilities.

What Are the Vulnerabilities of the 5G Network?  

 Like all new technologies, the 5G Network may be open to logistical, physical, and technical vulnerabilities. First, 5G network components are likely to have logistical weaknesses as new elements are installed to build the Network’s infrastructure. Correctly, the use of 5G infrastructure components manufactured by untrusted companies could expose the aviation industry to risks introduced by malicious software and hardware, counterfeit and flawed components, and inadequate manufacturing and maintenance procedures. This vulnerability is apparent as there is only one U.S. company engaged in manufacturing significant parts of the 5G Network. Even if 5G components in the U.S. infrastructure are secure, data that travels overseas through untrusted telecommunications networks are vulnerable from theft, manipulation, and destruction.[3]

Second, the physical vulnerabilities of the 5G Network are unknown and could create a target-rich environment for malicious actors to intercept, manipulate, and destroy essential data from all sectors of the aviation industry. If practical 5G security enhancements are to be implemented by the aviation industry before the adoption of this Network, the industry must make a concerted effort to identify and understand its physical vulnerabilities.[4]

Lastly, technical vulnerabilities found in the legacy 4G network may make the 5G Network less secure, negating the improved security design of the 5G Network. Specifically, malicious actors could leverage the known technical vulnerabilities of the 4G Network to bypass and circumvent the 5G built-in security measures. While the new 5G infrastructure will be built upon the existing 4G Network and thus the vulnerabilities may be inevitable, it is important for the aviation industry to know and understand this risk before it adopts 5G.[1]

How Will the Aviation Industry Use the 5G Network?  

It should not be any surprise that the in-flight entertainment and communication industry was the first to announce the use of the 5G Network. Earlier this year, Gogo announced plans to build a 5G air-to-ground network designed for use in business aviation aircraft, commercial, regional jets and small mainline jets operating in the U.S. and Canada. Gogo is expecting its 5G Network to be available by 2021.[2] However, Gogo is not alone in its embrace and investment into 5G technology. Airbus, Delta, Sprint, OneWeb, and Airtel are all looking to improve and expand the in-flight experience by providing seamless streaming capabilities for business travelers to conduct conference calls, video conference, and real-time collaborative data sharing tools.[3] This expanded capability will likely result in more sensitive business information to be shared using these in-flight 5G networks. Thus, making the impact of a malicious actor taking advantage of the possible vulnerabilities of the 5G Network more significant.

There is little doubt that airport operations will benefit from the increased bandwidth and speed that 5G will provide. It’s likely that the 5G Network will be implemented to improve everything from ground communication, logistical activities, security operations, and other airport operations.[4],[5] While 5G will make these aspects of airport operations more efficient, it may also make them more susceptible to a cyberattack that advantages of vulnerabilities in the 5G Network. This could result in a disruption in air traffic, gaps in security, and a decline in customer services and confidence.[6] 

Other sectors of the aviation industry will leverage the 5G Network’s increased bandwidth and decreased latency to expand services that were limited by legacy networks. Specifically, the 5G Network will allow the deployment of commercial drones to provide civil surveillance, package delivery, and personal mobility services.[7] Additionally, 5G will likely promote improvements in aircraft manufacturing, avionics, and data collaboration technologies.

In fact, as early as 2018, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) began an experimental verification of the 5G technologies in civil aviation applications. This experiment included a plan to build networks based on satellite and 4G/5G air-to-ground networks to provide broadband communications services for civil aviation airports, unmanned aerial vehicles, general aviation, and transportation airlines. CAAC’s initiative is to promote the 5G Network as a potential for application in civil aviation and to jump-start potential collaboration with the aviation industry.[1]

How Can the Aviation Industry Mitigate Against Potential 5G Vulnerabilities?

 First, the aviation industry must encourage continued trusted development of reliable 5G network technologies. Companies that will leverage the 5G Network in the future must question the potential vulnerabilities of the network architecture and the significant components that will be part of the Network’s infrastructure. These companies must also examine how the use of the existing 4G Network will make them vulnerable within the 5G Network even after they receive assurances of the improved 5G security design. The aviation industry must not be distracted by the enhanced services and increased operational efficiency that the 5G Network will provide. Instead, the sector must do its due diligence and encourage and demand the trusted development of the 5G Network.

Second, the aviation industry should actively collaborate with the U.S. Government to encourage and promote the establishment of international standards for 5G technologies. These standards should be open, transparent, and consensus-driven so that unknown vulnerabilities may be addressed and protective measures applied consistently.[2] At a minimum, companies that plan to leverage the benefits of the 5G Network should be concerned with the need for international standards and be engaged with the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Lastly, the aviation industry should collaborate with the U.S. Government to ensure that 5G applications and services have robust security capabilities.  While the government can help by incorporating a prevention-focused approach that focuses on security across the mobile Network, the aviation industry can encourage 5G network providers to secure the infrastructure against threats and mitigate threat movement on their Network.[3] 

What Does This All Mean?

 The benefits of 5G technology cannot be overstated. The explosion of IoT devices on the Network and the emerging technologies that will require increased bandwidth and decreased latency make the 5G Network a necessity. 5G networks are already being developed in the U.S., and several aviation companies have announced their intent to build their 5G networks shortly. Moreover, China is already making a 5G network that will test the broadband data communication services for a wide range of aviation operations.[4] 

In short, 5G is here, and the aviation industry is ready to embrace its benefits. However, the industry should not be distracted by these benefits and miss the opportunity to address the potential vulnerabilities of the Network. Individually, the aviation industry should question the integrity of component manufacturers, the exposure from legacy network interconnection, demand robust application and service security, and engage with government entities to encourage standardization of the Network. If these potential vulnerabilities are not adequately addressed before the deployment of their 5G networks, it could expose a company to a cybersecurity attack from malicious actors and impact information security and aviation operations.

[1]Garcia, A. (2019). “Looking for 5G? Here are the US Cities that have it.” Accessed on June 4, 2019.
[2]Blumenthal, Eli. (2018). “AT&T turns on its mobile 5G network on Dec. 21, starting with 12 cities and mobile hotspot.” USA Today. Accessed January 2, 2019.
[3]Downes, L. (2018). “5G: What is it good for?” Washington Post. Accessed on August 20, 2018.
[4]Phone Arena. (2013). “1G, 2G, 3G, 4G: The evolution of wireless generations.” Accessed on June 28, 2018.
[5]Grigorik, I. (2013). “High Performance Browser Networking.” Accessed on June 28, 2018.
[6]Intel. (2014) “The Evolution of Wireless Technology.” p. 1. Accessed on August 6, 2018.
[1]Blumenthal, Eli. (2018). “AT&T turns on its mobile 5G network on Dec. 21, starting with 12 cities and mobile hotspot.” USA Today. Accessed January 2, 2019.
[2]McGarry, C. (2019). “The Truth About 5G: What’s Coming (and What’s Not) in 2019”. Tom’s Guide.,review-5063.html. Accessed on June 5, 2019.
[3]DHS (2019). “Overview of Risks Introduced By 5G Adoption in the United States.”, Accessed on July 31, 2019.
[1]Ibid, 2.
[2]Business Aviation (2019). “Gogo To Launch 5G Network for Aviation.”  Accessed on August 2, 2019.
[3]Sillers, Paul. (2018) “High Five: 5G Set to Turn Aircraft Into IoT Flying Devices.” Accessed on August 4, 2019.
[5]Fenkell, Max. (2018). “Don’t Interfere With Aviation Safety: Test 5G Spectrum Allocation.” Accessed on August 4, 2019.
[6]Ewalt, Scott (2018). “Five Things Every Airport Needs to Know About 5G.” Accessed on August 4, 2019.
[7]Martin, Jorge. (2019). “Could the 5G technology lead a disruptive change in aviation.”  Accessed on August 2, 2019.
[1]International Civil Aviation Organization.  Thirteenth Air Navigation Conference.  “4G/5G Mobile Technology Application in Civil Aviation.”  Accessed on August 2, 2019.
[2]DHS (2019). “Overview of Risks Introduced By 5G Adoption in the United States.”, Accessed on July 31, 2019.
[4]International Civil Aviation Organization.  Thirteenth Air Navigation Conference.  “4G/5G Mobile Technology Application in Civil Aviation.”  Accessed on August 2, 2019.