Super Cities №184 — Breaking Down the 5G Threat

Brendan Hart

One Big Thing


Malcolm Turnbull defines the 5G threat

"It's important to remember that the threat is a combination of capability and intent. Capability can take years or decades to develop ... but intent can change in a heartbeat."


The defining theme of our time is widespread uncertainty. We don't have clarifying answers to critical questions.

Are America and China headed for war? Will smart robots kill us? How bad will climate change get? How will cities feed, house, and protect billions of additional people?

When it comes to matters of peace and prosperity, no one asking these questions wants to hear "it depends."

Uncertainty increases risk. That's why markets hate it.

So far, the narrative about Huawei has been absolute. Their 5G networks will either enable next-generation urban commerce (for technical reasons, 5G is a city-based network) or leave us vulnerable to Chinese intelligence. Even allies disagree.

Turnbull adds some texture to this conversation. The real challenge is that, rather than a total threat or a zero threat, Huawei's 5G is an uncertain risk with two variables: capability and intent.

Capability is a discoverable threat. For example, we know that North Korea, Russia, and others have sophisticated hacking capabilities. We know they can do certain things, but we don't always know what they will do.

Intent is much harder to assess and measure because it is "the state of mind with which an act is done." This state of mind can change, slowly or sharply, under a wide range of externalities.

The standard responses to it compound the problems of uncertainty.

In the world of social media expertise, we demand certainty—almost always false certainty—and punish nuance. The guy who says "we must remain vigilant" doesn't have a lot of Twitter followers, but the talk radio host who claims to know when the world will end is a best-selling author.

When I think about these issues, I like first to determine if they require Type 1 or Type 2 decisions.

Like the internet, 5G networks have the capability to cause serious harm. These networks will be ubiquitous and handle our most sensitive information, so if we don't know or cannot know the intent of the networks' operators, are we willing to accept that risk?

The answer to that question feels like a one-way door.

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