With the pending deployment of the 5G NR networks, there is an abundance of misinformation, confusion, and downright false knowledge. Here are a few of the current issues that the internet is stirring up. Every week, I hear comments from friends and acquaintances telling me the ‘facts’ about 5G, even though nothing has been deployed yet, folks firmly believe that these myths are serious and life threatening.
This is the biggest and most contentious topic and one that I hear literally every week. All of the so called experts derive their knowledge from conspiracy web sites that once reviewed have virtually no credibility nor cited references from science. So, it is very hard to take them seriously.
With that said, RF safety is a serious issue and one that warrants a proper technical review. It is also a topic that is heavily regulated globally. Here in Canada, we have the federal government impose strict rules and regulations related to this topic. The technical aspects are controlled bu ISED (Industry, Science, and Economic Development). After 40 years of first-hand dealings with ISED and its predecessor, Industry Canada, I firmly trust this regulator and its army of engineers and experts to do their job correctly. They take their job seriously and do it well. With regards to the radiation concerns, ISED defers to Health Canada, another federal ministry to set the standards and protect Canadians from undue ionizing radiation. The Health Canada code, called, Safety Code 6, is respected globally and used by numerous other countries as their de facto RF safety standard too. So, Canada leads the world in RF safety and is cited for its high standards.
Now, with the low bands and even the mid bands, I believe that there is sufficient study and empirical evidence available to trust the Safety Code 6 standards. I also believe that this standard is sufficient for the high band or millimetre wavelengths used. However, I am also of the view that more research and study in the mmWave band is prudent and warranted.
While many are troubled about the potential for excessive radiation from the many small cells to be added to the existing Canadian inventory of over 14,000 cell sites in this country (BCE = 4,000, Rogers = 5,200, and Telus = 4,600). These macro cell sites, over time, will be converted to 5G sites. Since the bandwidths and EIRP energy of the macro sites will largely remain static, these sites will be of no meaningful concern from an RF safety perspective.
However, adding the small cell sites, including femtocell, picocell, and microcell sites to the national inventory of macro cell sites is something that needs to be fully considered. The small cell sites will operate mainly in the mid and high bands. The standards for these bands are still in flux, so it is difficult to accurately state that there is zero health concerns. I remain hopeful that this issue will be completely resolved before the world deploys these small cells. Since the radiation is non-ionizing, the general perspective is that it is not harmful. However, issues of minor health concerns due to the aggregation of multiple small cells in close proximity can create RF hot spots and harmonics that needs to be better understood.
With all of that said, the extremely unbalanced perspectives posed on many conspiracy theory web sites is often too ridiculous to take seriously. I believe in science so let us have the empirical evidence and the studies before we jump off the cliff and rage about the risks. I would argue that we are 95% safe in the mmWave frequencies but it would be smart to seek 99.9% safe. I will never concede to be 100% confident as this is something that science has proven over and over again to be a fallacy as well.
A second debate rages that there is no security for the 5G networks. Again, this is total nonsense. Because 5G is a federated network, the security must also be federated. In fact, this network federation demands a divide and conquer strategy. Arguably this federated approach is even more secure than the current centralized security model.
With the centralized approach, we have a data centre with a multi-million dollar firewall surrounding it. These firewalls have intrusion detection systems (IDS) and intrusion protection systems (IPS) as well as other tools to ensure user protection. However, they largely operate on a ‘trusted’ model. This means that if you can get inside the proverbial castle that is surrounded by the moat (firewall) then you are inside and go where you like and do whatever you like. This approach is scary to me. If a Trojan Horse attack gets into your castle, then these bad actors can roam freely in your data and do as they wish.
The 5G security model is built upon the ‘zero trust’ approach that trusts no one and has gatekeepers throughout the network to validate and authenticate the users. Yes, they are checked, double checked, and even triple checked, so no one is permitted to freely roam about the data without being validated as a proper and correct user with permissions to be where they are and doing what they are doing. These validations happen in the data centre, at the applications, at the edge and at many strategic locations within the network fabric. As the networks are now subdivided into smaller pieces we are no longer placing all the data at risk, we can mitigate unauthorized bad actors and limit the risks. Security and the changes to security are more than sufficient to make 5G secure and protected.
All organizations in Canada, must adhere to the governments privacy laws. In Canada, privacy is a serious issue. Canada is well aligned to the European Union who are reputed to possess the world’s most protective privacy laws. We comply to these standards in a similar manner. The USA does not comply but for the most part has fairly good privacy laws in place today too. What is troubling in the USA is the erratic nature of policy by the current administration and the impacts of the Patriot Act that bypasses some of the normal safe guards afforded to citizens of Canada and the EU.
There are several laws in Canada that relate to privacy rights. Enforcement of these laws is handled by various government organizations and agencies. Several factors determine which laws apply and who oversees them. Among them:
- The nature of the organization handling the personal information
- Is it a federal government institution?
- Is it a provincial or territorial government institution?
- Is it private sector?
- Is it engaged in commercial activities?
- Is it a federally regulated business?
- Where is the organization based?
- What type of information is involved?
- Does the information cross provincial or national borders?
Digital and data-driven technology is already empowering science, supporting innovation, and driving economic growth. For example, advancements in areas including robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and nanotechnology are leading to ground-breaking discoveries with significant economic and social benefits. But while these technological achievements are in many ways enriching our society, this transformation also brings with it challenges and uncertainty that we as a country must be prepared to address. In response to this, some stakeholders have called for the Government to adopt a National Data Strategy.
On June 19, 2018, the Government of Canada launched its National Digital and Data consultations to demonstrate its commitment to continuing to work together to make Canada a nation of innovators. As we noted in Canada’s Digital Charter in Action: A Plan by Canadians, for Canadians, the Government asked Canadians across the country to share their unique perspectives and ideas on what are some of the challenges and areas of opportunity for Canada in this time of transformation. And they received a resounding response — from small business owners and multi-national companies; students, teachers, and researchers; innovators and entrepreneurs; and everyone in between.
Canadians shared their optimism with the Government about the great social and economic potential for Canada in this digital age. But they also shared their concerns about how personal data could be used. Simply put, the way forward on data collection, management and use must be built on a strong foundation of trust and transparency between citizens, companies, and government.
Trust is indeed the lynchpin of the digital and data-driven economy. Yet, clearly, individuals’ trust is at risk. Popular media is rife with stories of data breaches; misuse of personal information by large companies; foreign interference, and malicious actors; cyberbullying; along with increasing concern about the impacts of the digital and data revolution on issues ranging from our mental health to democratic institutions. Ineffective or inconsistent security hygiene; a lack of competition; and business models that are based on surveillance of individuals have left individuals increasingly wary of how the products and services on which they now depend for nearly all aspects of their activities are collecting and using their personal information.
Changes to the Privacy Act will enhance individual privacy and align Canada with EU countries that are already leading in protections to respect the individual and their rights.
StingRays and Fake Towers
Many conspiracy theorist believe that there is an abundance of fake towers in urban and suburban areas that are hijacking your calls or listening into you calls to gather your personal information.
The various police forces have been known to set up towers referred to as StingRays. StingRays, also known as “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers,” are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information.
Canadian government officials say StingRays and devices like it have never been authorized for use in Canada – even if some security agencies have already used them. The controversial cellphone-surveillance technology allows police departments and other authorities to spy on the cellphone activity of a wide variety of citizens. How these devices work, where they come from, and how they are being used is a story of its own.
Cell phones have a number of unique digital identifiers that are constantly blasting out so that networks (cellular or Wi-Fi) can decide whether your device is allowed to transmit data on that network. Among them are the International Mobile Subscriber Number (IMSI) and the Electronic Serial Number (ESM). In 1996, a German company called Rohde & Schwarz starting selling something it called an IMSI catcher, to track those unique phone IDs. There are now several companies that sell them (often for tens of thousands of dollars each) to law enforcement and security organizations around the world.
At its core, an IMSI catcher like the StingRay is just another radio transmitter that pretends to be a base station or tower like the ones Rogers and Bell operate, except that it’s not going to route your calls through to your friends. Instead, it can identify and track your phone, as well as actually block you from making calls, or in some circumstances, on some devices, can even record the calls themselves.
Like the cell towers, these devices have limited range, so you have to be near an IMSI catcher to show up on its system. The closer you get, the stronger the signal, which is how it can pinpoint your location. But it’s also indiscriminate: It tracks everyone in the area, in the hopes it will find a target it actually wants. Federal prison authorities in Canada are dealing with the consequences of that. They are facing a criminal investigation and lawsuit after using a surveillance device inside a jail.
So, while I expect that there are StingRays in use today in Canada, I do not believe that they are widely deployed. If I hazarded a guess, there might be a handful of these devices used in Canada by the RCMP, CSIS, and a few major law enforcement agencies in major cities, so perhaps just 5 to 15 StingRays in the entire country. Considering that there are nearly 14,000 4G cell towers today, that is not a major threat, unless you are an evildoer and have caught the attention of the serious crime investigators. The range is minimal so the threat is even less for honest citizens. And, in Canada, a Judge needs to sign off on the use of these devices for any criminal investigation, so there is a legal scrutiny process before they can be installed. When they are installed, it may be for a few weeks or months during an investigation.
Another aspect is cell towers disguised so they are less of an eyesore for the public. Often these disguise towers are assumed to be covert towers used for spying on the public however, the truth is that the carriers are simply try to make the landscape more attractive and reduce visual pollution and eyesores.
Engineers at Bell Labs first envisioned a modern cellular communications network back in the 1940s. Wireless towers, they imagined, would create biological cell-like coverage areas. But that was the extent of their organic metaphor — they never would have guessed that the towers themselves would be designed to look “natural.”
With the rise of mobile phones in the 1980s came ever more cellular network towers, and, of course, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) criticisms from nearby residents who saw them as eyesores. Thus, an array of camouflage techniques emerged alongside this expanding technology. Towers were hidden inside church steeples, coupled with water towers, disguised as flagpoles and otherwise made to stand out less in their environments. Of course, there’s not always another structure handy to help hide a tower. So, in the early 1990s, a new idea took root and towers designed to look like trees began to crop up.
A new Rogers cellphone tower in Greater Sudbury is stirring a commotion.
The new tower, erected off Long Lake Road across from Sunnyside Road, isn’t your normal tower — at least, not for Sudbury, anyway.
It’s sporting branches designed to make the tower look like a tree. It’s the first of its kind in Northern Ontario, and although it’s a more common sight in southern Ontario, here in the North, it’s left many residents asking to whom it belongs.
One resident of Long Lake Road, said the idea is a good one, to help the tower blend in, but it actually sticks out like a sore thumb right now.
Rogers has verified it is indeed their tower. When asked for comment on the tower, the company’s reply was rather commercial.
“When determining the locations of our towers, our engineers take into consideration the proximity to communities, the visibility of the tower from passing traffic and existing structures, and the concerns of local residents,” said spokesperson Michelle Kelly, director, media relations, in an email. “As with any potential tower, we work closely with the community and the municipality to make sure the design and location works for them.”
So, these disguised cell towers are not nearly as nefarious as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe. In fact, the federal Government has every single cell tower site published in a database and you can get apps on you cellphone to provide detailed information on every tower including ownership, frequencies, and other critical parameters. This data is needed for licencing and aviation obstruction clearances. So, not really as covert as someone without engineering awareness might assume.
There are many myths, false beliefs, assumptions, and other conspiracy stories. Most are not supported by any meaningful facts are underpinned by misunderstandings and hearsay stories.
On social media, forums and online blogs, anti-5G activists are attributing a bewildering range of maladies to 5G, including cancer, infertility, autism and Alzheimer’s. In November 2018, a viral Facebook post blamed a 5G test mast for the mysterious death of 300 birds in the Netherlands (the test actually took place months earlier), while people in anti-5G groups share tips on how to smash down telephone masts. But how did an incremental upgrade in mobile networks turn into the internet’s favourite new conspiracy theory?
Perhaps the most prominent lynchpin in the anti-5G movement is John Kuhles – a Dutch UFO researcher who founded the “Stop5G” Facebook group in 2018. The group, which now has more than 20,000 members, was the ground zero of the bird death myth, and other theories, including one suggesting that the Californian wildfires in November 2018 were a punishment by the “ruling elite” because of the state’s failure to roll out “mass 5G”.
EE (Everything Everywhere) is a British mobile network operator, internet service provider and a division of BT Group. It is the largest mobile network operator in the UK and has recently come under attack for its cellular deployments and upgrades for 4G and in preparation for 5G.
Kuhles’ main group has inspired local spinoffs, including “Stop 5G UK”, which has 13,000 members, and countless smaller groups that worry about 5G being rolled out in their own city or town. In Glastonbury, UK residents have already appealed to the local council to halt EE’s plans to rollout 5G at the music festival later this month. On Twitter, anti-5G acolytes share posts around the hashtag #Stop5G while on Instagram accounts share questionable images of people in hazmat suits working on what are supposed to be 5G masts.
Despite this, there is no solid evidence that 5G – or any mobile communications network – can have a harmful effect on human health. The upgrade is based on similar technology to preceding mobile networks, and so far no study has found a link between mobile phones and cancer, although research into the area is ongoing.
Dingman, S. (2018). Tracking our phones: How StingRay devices are being used by police. The Globe and Mail Inc. Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/tracking-our-phones-how-stingray-devices-are-being-used-by-police/article29322747/
Government of Canada. (2018). Summary of privacy laws in Canada. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/privacy-topics/privacy-laws-in-canada/02_05_d_15/
Government of Canada. (2019). Strengthening Privacy for the Digital Age. Industry, Science, and Economic Development (ISED). Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/062.nsf/eng/h_00107.html
Leong, B. (2019). What is 5G Cell Technology? How Will It Affect Me? Future of Privacy Forum. Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://fpf.org/2019/09/17/what-is-5g-cell-technology-how-will-it-affect-me/
Pickard, A. (2018). What do you think of the South End cell tower disguised as a tree? Sudbury.com. Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://www.sudbury.com/local-news/is-rogers-barking-up-the-wrong-tree-with-new-cell-tower-in-sudbury-966081
Vertical Consultants. (2018). 5G Cell Towers – Are They Safe & Who Decides Where They Go? Vertical Consultants LLC. Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://www.celltowerleaseexperts.com/cell-tower-lease-news/5g-cell-towers-are-they-safe-who-decides-where-they-go/
Weiss, S. (2019). Bird-killing, cancer-causing 5G is the internet’s new favourite conspiracy theory. Wired. Retrieved on October 23, 2019 from, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/5g-health-risks-concerns
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.