Singapore needs secure 5G network, but every system will have vulnerabilities: PM Lee

Singapore needs secure 5G network, but every system will have vulnerabilities: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on May 31, 2019. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Singapore will need a secure 5G telecommunications network that the country can have confidence in, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (May 31).

However, every system will have its vulnerabilities, which are bound to be discovered and exploited sooner or later, he said.

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Mr Lee was speaking at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue during a Q&A session where he was asked whether he shared Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s view on Huawei, the Chinese tech giant which was recently placed on the US’ trade blacklist.

The question was posed by Mr Shawn Ho, an associate research fellow from S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

The Malaysian Prime Minister had said that Malaysia would try to make use of Huawei’s technology as much as possible. He added that Malaysia was “too small to have an effect” on a company like Huawei and that the country was “an open book” with nothing to spy on.

In his answer, Mr Lee said that Singapore was in the process of defining and selecting its 5G system and equipment, but was doing so carefully.

“We are consulting with industry, we are consulting with friendly regulators and we will make these decisions in due course. But what is at stake in this 5G discussion? It is to have a secure telecommunications network,” said Mr Lee.

“Telecoms systems are very complex, and especially 5G is an order of magnitude more complex than 4G, and we want a resilient telecoms system because it’s the backbone of the economy and we want a secure telecoms system because you want to have confidence that it will work for you, and it is not leaking on you.”

VULNERABILITIES BOUND TO BE DISCOVERED, EXPLOITED

Mr Lee, however, pointed out that it was “quite unrealistic to expect 100 per cent security from any telecoms systems”.

“Even the handphone you buy is not 100 per cent secure, much less the entire telephone network. And it doesn’t matter whom you buy it from – it can be a friendly country, it can be a hostile country – you can design it yourself,” said Mr Lee.

READ: In full: PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue

“Every system will have vulnerabilities. Some may be innocently there, some may be deliberately there, some may be discovered later - only by chance - but every system will have its vulnerabilities, and they are bound to be discovered and exploited by all kinds of blackhats, sooner or later.”

Mr Lee stressed that the more "fundamental issue" was trust. 

"I need to have trust in order to use the system, and if I suspect that you will abuse my trust to compromise my systems, I will not be able to do business with you, so that is a very serious problem," said Mr Lee. 

"When you are buying a system and you are buying it from another country ... you have to take into consideration the state of your relations with that country, and not just the technical aspects." 

Distrust can have grave consequences, he warned.

"The Soviets did that - they had their own systems, they had their own aeroplanes,  they had their own computers ... and it’s a completely different world. I think it is an unhappier world, it’s a less safe world," he added.

Mr Lee further pointed out that trust was "a very difficult problem" to solve because of anonymity on the Internet.

"If you look around the room, everybody denies doing this, and yet ... everybody says I have a very serious problem with cybersecurity, with intrusions," he said.

"With this cloak of anonymity, the incentive for players, whether state players or non-state players, to behave themselves is considerably diminished. 

"You won’t be found out, you can’t be caught red-handed. Therefore what is to stop you, me from doing what I want to do?"

Mr Lee added: "In the long term, you need to get established rules, we have to find some ways to pin responsibility. We can name and shame, and then there is some restraint, okay I won’t do this, you won’t do this, because everybody will know if I do it, and it will damage my reputation. But that will take time.

"For the immediate decisions on the 5G systems, I think each country will have to weigh the options, the uncertainties and will have to make its own choice."

Source: CNA/ad(hm)

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