What once seemed like science fiction will soon become reality. Doctors will perform surgery from thousands of miles away using remote-controlled robots. Self-driving cars will zip through traffic.
This is the promise of fifth-generation wireless technologies, or "5G." Internet users will download up to 10 gigabytes of videos and documents per second -- one hundred times faster than existing 4G networks. The ability to transmit vast quantities of data virtually instantaneously will revolutionize our lives.
But 5G will also unleash new security risks. Hyper-connectivity will give cybercriminals and hostile foreign countries more opportunities to hack our devices and networks, imperiling our wealth and our lives. It's crucial regulators, companies, and consumers start shoring up their defenses -- fast.
5G smartphones are already commercially available. The big four cellular carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon -- provide 5G service in select cities. Within five years, 5G will cover 40 percent of the global population.
The spread of 5G will accelerate the "Internet of Things" -- devices such as thermostats, fitness monitors, refrigerators, alarm clocks, lightbulbs, and even dog collars that connect to the Web.
This enhanced connectivity will make daily routines more efficient and convenient. But it'll also open the floodgates for cyber-criminality.
Imagine the opportunities criminals will enjoy once every electronic device is 5G-capable. Burglars could hack smart thermostats -- which "learn" when families leave their homes -- to discover when the house may be empty. Predators could hack 5G-connected security cameras to peek into children's rooms.
Criminals have already hijacked 4G devices. In 2016, the infamous "Mirai" botnet took control of 300,000 internet-connected devices to launch a massive denial-of-service attack that knocked out internet connection for most of the Eastern Seaboard.
Imagine these same actors obtaining control of 5G remote-controlled surgery machines, delivery drones, or automated cars. The possibilities are endless.
Sensible government regulations can prevent such abuses. Some lawmakers have introduced legislation calling on the President to develop a strategy for 5G security. But we need to do more.
For one, it's imperative officials establish an independent regulator exclusively focused on the 5G rollout. That regulator must have the resources to develop advanced security measures and anticipate and respond to potential future threats. The existing patchwork of outdated rules and agencies won't do.
Regulators should also mandate that all "Internet of Things" devices have built-in 5G security protections and encrypted data transmissions. Too often, private industry ignores the threat of cybercrime to cut costs.
As mobile operators rebuild their network infrastructure to accommodate 5G, they
need to ensure that the entire data chain contains robust, easily updatable security features.
Consumers can strengthen their own defenses by taking a few simple precautions.
People must change default passwords of their 5G-connected devices; even amateur hackers can easily figure out the factory settings of home devices. Similarly, owners should regularly update their software -- new firmware typically includes upgraded security features.
A dose of common sense also makes a difference when it comes to seemingly harmless data sharing. A hiker who uses her 5G smartwatch to share a geolocated Instagram post of her morning trek could inadvertently allow strangers to track her movements.
5G represents a leap forward as groundbreaking as the invention of wireless itself. But we're not nearly prepared enough to deal with the security risks. It's critical consumers, companies, and governments change that.
Babak D. Beheshti is professor and dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at New York Institute of Technology. This piece originally ran in the International Business Times.