5G telecoms networks could render obsolete the “lawful interception” techniques that police is traditionally using, unless the European Union and national governments take action. This was revealed in internal EU documents obtained by EDRi member Statewatch, that has published a new analysis explaining the issues and calling for a public debate.
“It is unsurprising that EU officials are concerned about the possible loss of telephone-tapping powers,” said Chris Jones, a researcher at Statewatch. “However, the very same technologies they are worried about will give law enforcement and security agencies disturbing possibilities for accessing data on individuals in order to track their activities and behaviour. This has to be seen as part of the same issue as the possible loss of ‘traditional’ wiretapping powers. Rather than secretive attempts to influence standard-setting and law-making, a public discussion is required about the acceptable limits of surveillance and interception powers in light of emerging technologies.”
On 7 June 2019, the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) held a discussion on implications of 5G in the area of internal security, a topic taken up in documents produced recently by Europol and the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator that Statewatch published alongside the analysis.
The documents warn that various aspects of the technology underpinning 5G communications networks could make traditional wiretapping methods far more complicated or even render them useless. For example, the IMSI code – used to identify an individual device – will be encrypted, meaning “the security authority authorities are no longer able to locate or identify the mobile device,” according to Europol. 5G networks will also be able to detect false “base stations” – making it impossible to use IMSI catchers (or “stingrays”), devices that imitate telecoms antennae in order to discreetly acquire user data. Other issues such as network slicing, edge computing, and network function virtualisation raise their own problems, leading to significant new challenges for law enforcement agencies wanting access to individuals’ data.
Proposals to overcome the limitation of traditional wiretapping methods range from trying to influence the international bodies responsible for establishing the relevant technical standards; passing new laws (at both national and EU level) to enforce police demands; and ensuring a broader discussion amongst officials both within the EU and beyond, for example with major surveillance powers such as the US, Australia and Canada.
However, although 5G technologies could limit law enforcement agencies’ access to certain types of data, if the hype is to be believed, one of 5G’s main functions will be to enable the generation, storage and sharing of vast tomes of data on individuals, objects, devices and the environment through the “internet of things”. In the US, for example, data from “smart” (i.e. internet-connected) water meters, pacemakers and in-car safety systems have been used in court proceedings. This presents significant new opportunities for police and security agencies, even if they lose access to other long-standing surveillance techniques.
The analysis argues that both the possibility of law enforcement agencies losing some of their current powers – at the same time as vast new surveillance possibilities are opened up – should be a matter for public debate.
Analysis: A world without wiretapping? Official documents highlight concern over effects 5G technology will have on “lawful interception” (05.06.2019)
Indicative programme – Justice and Home Affairs Council of 6 and 7 June 2019
EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator: Law enforcement and judicial aspects related to 5G (06.05.2019)
Position paper on 5G by Europol (11.04.2019)
(Contribution by EDRi member Statewatch, the United Kingdom)