As countries around the world begin deploying 5G technology, the promises of faster speeds and better service sometime obscure a host of security issues affecting the next-generation cellular technology. These security concerns exist despite improvements in data encryption, authentication and privacy embodied in recent releases of the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the technical standards organization for cellular communications.The most prominent of 5G security fears are highlighted in the Trump administration\u2019s fight to ban technology from China\u2019s tech giant Huawei from U.S. next-generation networks. The U.S. government is also seeking to persuade European and other allies to shun Huawei, an effort that has met with limited success. The basic fear driving the Huawei ban is that the company caters to the government in Beijing and might very well embed surveillance capabilities into its technology or otherwise spy for the Chinese government, making 5G completely insecure from the get-go.Old cellular vulnerabilities not addressed by 5GOther security issues in 5G technology have been flagged by experts. One expert, Roger Piqueras Jover, kicked off a talk on the topic at this year\u2019s Shmoocon conference by noting that although some mobile technology companies tout 5G as more secure, researchers are pointing out problems and before the technology has even launched. (Jover is a security engineer in the CTO\u2019s office of Bloomberg L.P. by day but a mobile technology researcher on the side. His mobile technology analysis does not reflect the views of Bloomberg).In his presentation, and later in discussions with CSO, Jover said the main overarching problems plaguing previous generations of mobile technology \u2013 GSM, 4G, and LTE \u2013 have not been addressed in 5G standards and plans. One, in particular, the ability to intercept so-called pre-authentication messages between the user\u2019s base station and the cellular tower, still exists in the 5G specifications and proposed architectures and could allow attackers to intercept messages in the clear.\u201cIn cellular, your phone hears broadcast messages from a tower. Could be 3G, could be 4G, could be 5G. The tower is saying, \u2018Hey, I\u2019m your operator,\u2019\u201d Jover explains to CSO. \u201cThere is no cryptographic way to verify that, so you implicitly trust that that\u2019s true.\u201dThere is a cryptographic handshake once the carrier begins to route the messages. Still, in this pre-authentication stage, \u201cThere are a lot of messages exchanged in both directions that you implicitly trust. You trust that you are talking to a real operator, and the operator trusts that it is talking with a smartphone,\u201d Jover says.By abusing these unprotected messages, malicious actors can do \u201call kinds of things.\u201d Both LTE and 5G standards developed to thwart this international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catching, or in the terminology of 5G technology, Subscription Permanent Identifier (SUPI) attacks, but those standards are optional. In general, optional features never get implemented, Jover said.The digital certificate solutionOne solution to this problem is straightforward, according to Jover. Implement digital certificates in 5G, along with the signifiers that indicate the connection is using encryption technology. \u201cCertificates have been used for over ten years. This technology is fairly mature. Why not use the same technology?\u201d he says. \u201cI personally feel comfortable typing my credit card in a website\u201d that has an HTTPS lock icon in the address bar, indicating an encrypted connection.\u201cYou could, and probably should, use digital certificates to provide these devices with a way to cryptographically verify that they are indeed talking with a base station,\u201d says Jover. These certificates could also help screen out sites from undesirable sources or locations. \u201cIf you use digital certificates, you can very easily decide which certificate authorities you trust.\u201dThere are some complications, Jover notes. First, as he acknowledged at Shmoocon, \u201cIt would require a lot of global efforts of standards,\u201d because 5G standards don\u2019t currently accommodate this kind of encryption certification. Secondly, smartphones have no way of blocking in advance certificates that were once trusted but have now been revoked, because until users actually make a connection with the carrier, they aren\u2019t able to access the internet.Although it might be helpful to have digital certificate capability in 5G networks, "There are 20 problems with 5G, and this might be problem number 17,\u201d cryptographer and fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School Bruce Schneier tells CSO.Certificates won\u2019t solve all 5G trust problemsAlthough Schneier said he had not reviewed Jover\u2019s work, he argues there are much larger and more significant security concerns that surround the deployment of 5G. \u201cYou don\u2019t jump from a certificate system that helps authenticate unauthenticated messages to solving the \u2018trust\u2019 problem,\u201d Schneier says. \u201cWe\u2019re afraid that Huawei puts backdoors in their chips. That is a trust problem that has nothing to do with unauthenticated messages.\u201dAs both Jover and Schneier acknowledge, there are a lot of security problems with 5G up and down multiple layers of its protocol stack. Both appear to be fans of the 5GReasoner proposal put forth by researchers from Purdue University and the University of Iowa that presents a framework for dealing with the complex and use-case-sensitive issues surrounding 5G. \u201cThat paper is the greatest thing that has happened in cellular,\u201d Jover tells CSO.The truth is, \u201cNobody wants 5G security,\u201d Schneier tells CSO. \u201cGovernments like spying on 5G. Carriers don\u2019t care very much. They\u2019ll do what the law says.\u201dA lot of those vulnerabilities that carried over from 4G were put there by the government, or at least weren\u2019t fixed in the [standards-setting body] ITU,\u201d Schneier says. In short, it\u2019s too late to do anything about 5G security at the foundational levels. If that\u2019s true, the world will have to wait for security fixes in 6G, which will likely deploy commercially around 2030, according to most experts.