‘It can potentially have a huge impact,’ said Nicole van der Meulen, senior strategic analyst at Europol. ‘It really is a paradigm shift. How do we proceed as investigative services in terms of the interception?’
The technique of 5G is substantially different on certain points than that of 4G. Not only are the data connections much faster and more reliable, the encryption goes to a higher level and more and different networks can be used at the same time. One for example to have a surgeon perform a remote operation, another to drive a tractor without a driver and another to watch videos on your phone.
But this technique makes it more difficult to tap calls, because, according to Europol, the calls will no longer go through the central providers in 5G, but will look for the shortest route directly from the mast to the mast. ‘An enormous improvement for the speed of the network,’ says Fabian van den Broek, researcher at the Institute for Computing and Information Science at Radboud University, ‘but that does mean that tapping is becoming more difficult in principle’. In 2007, police and intelligence services centralized the tapping facilities. ‘Technically, it will be complicated to place a direct tap in 5G,’ says Van der Broek, ‘the telecom providers are required by law to make the network tapping’.
‘But the problems are greater,’ Van den Broek confirms, ‘and that is in the unique number that every SIM card has, the so-called IMSI number.’ Van den Broek explains that as soon as we make a mobile call we register with this IMSI number at the nearest mast of the provider. ‘A secure connection is then set up, but there are weaknesses that investigative and intelligence services use. They can use a device, a so-called IMSI-Catcher, to pick up the signal from a mobile and pretend to be a provider’.
Users themselves do not notice this much, because the connection is simply established. The IMSI-Catcher can then trace the number and location in the 4G network. ‘The IMSI-Catchers have evolved considerably anyway and can also record full conversations. For example, they can disable encryption,’ says Van der Broek. A possibility that still exists via the older 2G network – still in full use – : the services can listen directly. The encryption in 2G proved weak over the years.
With the arrival of 5G, these possibilities for the services will disappear, according to Europol in its letter of fire. Two new techniques will make the IMSI Catcher impossible for work. To start with, the IMSI numbers of the telephones are encrypted. With the IMSI Catchers, the real number can no longer be found. In addition, a standard is also included in the 5G network to discover the IMSI Catchers and to ensure that they cannot penetrate the network.
The police and intelligence services are thus losing an important means of investigation. A look at judgments of the courts shows that it has been used frequently in recent times. It is one of the few ways to keep following and eavesdropping on criminals who are constantly changing phones. And, now also of great importance, to be able to trace missing persons or, for example, victims of loverboys.
The consequences for the investigation and intelligence gathering can then be great, but in Van den Broek’s view it was also the exploitation of a weakness in the system. ‘The entire network is becoming safer for everyone, including police officers, and that is to the benefit of everyone, and yes, that is at the expense of exploiting this temporary weakness,’ says Van den Broek.
Jelle van Buuren, researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, also sees the constant race between technology, privacy and security. ‘It is special in that respect that Europol rings the bell.’ Normally, this type of consultation takes place in secret, the urgency now seems high to put it on the agenda. ‘You can clearly see the tension of commercial interests, privacy and security in this case. And in this case it seems that the services are not sitting at the table ‘, says Van Buuren.
The Dutch police and the AIVD state that they are aware of the problem. According to the police, it is too early at the moment to indicate what this means in concrete terms for the investigation. Partly because the network still needs to be built. The AIVD reports that it is of obvious importance for national security that the intelligence services (and investigation services) can continue to do their work according to the law. Both services say they are still in discussions with relevant parties on this subject.
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