Smart 5G Decisions Today Can Preserve the Security and Privacy of all Tunisians

Smart 5G Decisions Today Can Preserve the Security and Privacy of all Tunisians

Op-Ed by Donald Blome, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia

The United States and Tunisia have an enduring partnership, based on shared interests and, more importantly, shared values.  10 years ago, Tunisians stood up for freedom, democracy and the dignity of every individual.  Since that time, the United States and Tunisia have worked together as part of a global community of nations committed to these ideals and to overcoming the unique challenges our changing world presents to achieving them.

One of these challenges is the blindingly fast advance of technology, in communications, artificial intelligence, and many other fields.  Tunisia, rich in human capital, is well placed to benefit from the rapid technological transformation of the global economy.  For societies committed to freedom and openness, the challenge is to ensure this new technology enhances economic progress, while also protecting the rights and privacy of citizens.

Fifth Generation (5G) wireless technology is an exciting and innovative development and will form the backbone of future economic advancement and public services.  From self-driving vehicles to telesurgeries to more efficient electrical grids, this new communications technology will dramatically improve the speed at which we can perform a multitude of tasks, providing the chance to improve all of our lives.

Nevertheless, 5G can also carry tremendous privacy and security risks.  Untrusted telecommunications vendors can use “backdoors” and “kill switches” in their equipment to siphon and collect data, unbeknown to users.  No country should entrust its networks to companies beholden to authoritarian governments.   Huawei, for example, is subject to China’s National Intelligence Law, which means it must turn over any data to its government upon request.  Huawei has been indicted in U.S. federal courts and is facing criminal charges in the United States for fraud, racketeering, and conspiring to steal trade secrets from U.S.-based companies.

The assessment of the United States and a growing number of technical experts around the world is that the risks associated with allowing telecommunications equipment supplied by companies that answer to authoritarian states anywhere in 5G networks cannot be mitigated.  Given how 5G networks operate, there will be no safe parts of a 5G network for untrusted equipment.

The United States is asking countries, including Tunisia, to rigorously review the risks of selecting untrusted vendors in order to ensure a safe and secure 5G network in the future.  More than 50 countries (representing nearly two thirds of the world’s GDP) have now joined the Clean Network, a coalition of countries and companies committed to using only trusted vendors in their 5G infrastructure.  This includes 26 of 27 EU member states.  These partners understand that tools tied to a surveillance state have no place in their networks, whether it be telecommunications equipment (including undersea cables), cloud systems, or mobile apps.

Any 5G technology provider should have strong and enduring trust from Tunisians, as the integrity of communication systems is essential to a country’s national security, human rights, intellectual property, and the privacy of its citizens.  We hope the Tunisian government, business community, and Tunisian citizens fully understand the risks of using untrusted vendors.   There are many options for 5G end-to-end equipment that are capable of providing strong security assurances.  A country will maximize its attractiveness to investors and the security of its citizens by choosing one of these trusted options.

As an economic matter, and in light of the need for Tunisia to be judicious with its capital investments, we understand cost is an important element in infrastructure spending.  Yet, when it comes to untrusted vendors’ equipment, it is critical to emphasize that an initial lower price tag can hide tremendous lifetime costs.  It is hard to quantify the cost of addressing security vulnerabilities that could endanger the Tunisian society’s economic and democratic goals.

We hope Tunisians will be able to take full advantage of all the benefits of 5G technology without concern over who has access to their personal information. Joining the Clean Network by pledging to keep untrusted vendors out of commercial and government 5G infrastructure will not only promote our collective security, but will also preserve the rights and liberties Tunisians have stood up for since 2011.


Donald Blome
U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia