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Advent of 5G communications triggers challenges for COMINT world

Speaking to MONS on a condition of anonymity a leading European Communications Intelligence (COMINT) professional has warned that the advent of fifth generation, or so-called ‘5G’, mobile phone technology which is due to proliferate globally over the next decade poses serious challenges for the COMINT community.

Broadly speaking, 5G cell phone technology promises a quantum leap in mobile communications. In particular, it will offer greatly increased data rates compared to existing 4G networks, in the order of up to 100 megabits-per-second in urban areas, with data rates in the order of tens of megabits per second elsewhere. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of subscribers will be able to use such data rates simultaneously, while latency for mobile communications will also be greatly reduced. One of the areas of the most concern for COMINT professionals is that 5G technology will offer the ability to use Mobile Ad Hoc Networking (MANET); a tactical radio protocol already in widespread use by the military. This will mean that each 5G telephone will act as a transmitter as well as a receiver for another telephone, meaning that communications can ‘skip’ across several telephones to reach their intended recipient, thus reducing the need for the ubiquitous cell phone towers which provide coverage over a defined area.

In COMINT, such towers are important in surveillance as the identity of a suspect’s mobile phone can be discerned by recording the unique identification number that the suspect’s phone possesses, and the new unique temporary identification it is given by the network when the suspect’s phone enters a particular area of coverage. Once these numbers are discerned it is possible to follow a suspect through a city, for example, by detecting every time the phone uses its unique identification to join a new part of the network when it makes contact with the tower. By dispensing with this ‘hub and spoke’ model in favour of a MANET approach, it will become harder to detect this movement.

Furthermore, 5G cell phones will work in comparatively higher frequency wavebands of 28 gigahertz/GHz, 38GHz and 40GHz. This will mean that the phone has a much shorter range compared to existing 4G phones, but as 5G will employ MANET being near a cell phone tower will be less important. However, this will mean that COMINT equipment to detect transmissions from a suspect’s phone will need to be comparatively nearer to the phone itself; not an ideal situation in covert surveillance. Finally, 5G will be utilised for the so-called ‘internet of things’ by which electronic devices beyond computer systems or communications equipment are networked. This could have the consequence of further saturating the electromagnetic spectrum and thus masking potential signals of interest from detection. “We have no choice but to find a mechanism of performing robust COMINT in the 5G era,” the expert warned.

Thomas Withington

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Publish date

02/21/2018

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