The evolution of wireless networking and data movement can be tracked through the chronological names of the generational wireless infrastructure, beginning back in the 1980s with the first generation, or 1G.   This first generation was the backbone that powered the brick-sized, hand-held, mobile devices with extending antennas, bag phones, and the ever-impressive center console phone units featured in new cars.  1G only allowed for voice calls.

Devices and Data in Leaps and Bounds  The 1990s ushered in 2G (second generation) wireless infrastructure, which permitted text messages and emails. We saw the first-ever flip phone, which was substantially smaller and lighter than the previous generation’s devices. Capabilities also expanded to include digital encryption of conversations, as well as improved radio frequency, enabling more users to leverage the technology.

In about 2000, 3G (third generation) wireless infrastructure enabled mobile and fixed wireless internet access. We also began to see the benefits of uploading and downloading data, enabling organizations to increase operational efficiencies. The growing concept of Wi-Fi everywhere provided internet access via the same radio towers that previously provided only voice services.

In 2010, 4G (fourth generation) wireless infrastructure became available. It continues to provide more bandwidth and greater speeds for everyday mobile-device operations, such as messaging, video-calling, TV streaming, and data transfer. To use it, 4G requires devices that are engineered to take advantage of its protocol. In general, 4G provides 10 megabytes per second for mobility communication in real world settings. It’s important to note it has a latency (travel delay) of 120ms (milliseconds), which impacts all aspects of data transfer.

The Future is Now with 5G  As we enter the decade of the 2020s, we see 5G (fifth generation) becoming more available. 5G will provide speeds of one gigabyte per second — 100 times faster than current 4G performance. To help you visualize this, picture the 4G wireless infrastructure as a garden hose; in comparison, 5G would be the Holland Tunnel. Information will travel faster than ever before. Super-connections will power autonomous cars, smart communities, industrial IoT (Internet of Things), as well as immersive education. The medical community will experience advancements only seen in sci-fi movies. A surgeon in New York could perform a complex surgery on a soldier in a combat zone field tent across the world, all over a wireless infrastructure, leveraging robotics. Part of what makes this possible isn’t just the enormous increase in transfer speeds, but also the reduction in latency. As mentioned above, 4G carries a latency of 120ms; 5G will reduce latency to 1ms (virtually no disruption), which we would all agree is important with a robotic arm inside of us. 

Technical advancements have evolved at a dizzying pace. The speed at which data travels has advanced, but equally impressive is the development of technologies and devices that leverage that speed.

Assuming you’re old enough, if you took yourself from 20 years ago and dropped yourself into today, you would hardly recognize what’s happening. Devices we hold in our hands have replaced or eliminated products, functionality and even industries – cameras, video camcorders, global positioning systems (GPS), digital recorders, landline phones, answering and fax machines, scanners, alarm clocks, calculators and TVs. Apps are constantly being developed that address nearly every aspect of life management.

5G will fuel the next level of advancement. Organizations like Tesla have been developing autonomous cars (already logging over 2 billion miles) that will leverage 5G transfer speeds, allowing vehicles to report back on hundreds of thousands of real-time critical data-points as the car is rolling down the road. It’s been forecasted that within the next 10 years, most cars could be self-driving; making a human-navigated vehicle a thing of the past.

Astounding Advancements in Artificial Intelligence Flanking 5G is the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) and recent breakthroughs in quantum computing. AI is already here; machine learning happens every day in our personal lives, as we use our digital assistants (Siri, Alexa, Nest, etc.). Each time we ask these devices something, the information is recorded and archived to our personal digital footprint. There is an ever-expanding big-data capture that has been happening for years. However, now that 5G is becoming available, this learning will escalate to new levels. 

The smartest classical computer (binary – 1/0 bits) in the world today is a system known as Summit, developed by IBM. It’s capable of 200 petaFLOPS (floating point operations per second). Google has successfully developed (what most consider to be) the first quantum computer (known as Sycamore), operating at 53 qubits (basic unit of quantum information – the quantum version of the classical binary bit). This engineering allows for the phenomena of superposition (1s and 0s occupying the same space). This article will not attempt to further explain this architecture; suffice to say, it’s very fast. A recent test proposed the most complex problem ever created to both the Summit and Sycamore computers. Google’s Sycamore solved it in 200 seconds; the IBM Summit computer could not solve it. In fact, it was calculated that it would take Summit more than 10,000 years to complete.

The Effects on the Education Space  Where there’s productivity advancement, there’s an equal if not greater advancement in nefarious activity. Threat actors are already using advanced technologies to compromise encryption and orchestrate complex criminal schemes. Many school districts have fallen victim to ransomware attacks as well as fraudulent wire-transfers; several right here in New Jersey. Well-planned breaches have rendered a growing number of New Jersey school districts unable to access their data and provide student services and, in some cases, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars deceptively captured, through seemingly valid transfers.

Increasing standardization of national online assessment testing makes the lure for cybercriminals’ focus on schools more relevant than ever.

Identities fetch significant money on the dark web; a dynamic not lost on confidential student-information. The increased speeds accompanying 5G communications is predicted to increase the Internet-of-Things (IoT) personal device count from today’s estimated three to approaching one hundred. This is especially concerning in schools, given their primary audience/consumers are young people interested in using the latest technology — in the fastest manner possible. Technology leaders within schools are already having difficulties managing the limited devices connecting today — the explosion of IoT (via 5G) will increase the attack surface for every school in the country — the more devices connecting, the more doors there are to enter.

School district technology managers are exploring network-slicing as one possible approach to mitigating risks associated with the anticipated increase of IoT and related issues. The software-defined features of the IoT device can be managed to reduce “lateral-movement” across a school’s network, restricting access to critical infrastructure. Additional tactics include leasing vs. purchasing technology; too often, purchased equipment is kept around (being depreciated) beyond a “safe-threshold,” leading to out-of-compliance gear being used — another open door. When you lease, your “payment-term” mirrors the usage-life of the technology, ensuring patches, fixes and updates remain available. 

The Regulatory Environment Compliance and regulatory laws are rapidly changing. Many industries are now required to maintain (at a minimum) annual risk assessments that provide a detailed blueprint of existing cyberthreat management protocols as well as penetration tests, reflecting scenario-driven outcomes. FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act), at its core, governs access to educational information and records. Currently, FERPA has not instituted formal cyberthreat management controls, however, there have been many cases of various funding (Title IV, etc.) programs being impacted by compromised and breached districts. A clear movement (nationally) is occurring where public school districts are engaging proactively in cyber-risk assessments to properly map their current cyberthreat management footprint, providing auditors with an “informed-state-of-readiness,” related to cybersecurity. This has resulted in continued and improved funding as well as savings related to operational-risk coverage & general liability.

Preventing Fraud and Threats in the 5G Era When it comes to fraud, real-time detection and prevention is certainly preferred over post-event reconciliation, but at 5G scale and speed, that is easier said than done. The increase in the number of connected devices will lead to a dramatic increase in data volume and velocity that will make it more difficult to identify and prevent scams. In the 5G environment, traditional fraud prevention techniques will not be viable anymore.

Cybercrime schemes and techniques will evolve and be more difficult to investigate and prosecute, especially given the emergence of 5G wireless technology. In response, school leaders do not have to be savvy technology experts, but they should have a basic understanding of the cyberthreats that could affect their district. Addressing these problems will take time, talent and money, and new capabilities and resources can’t be developed overnight. However, leaders should invest in the necessary training and resources to foster an organizational culture of accountability and one that equips employees to mount a defense against cyberthreats of today and tomorrow.

All members of a school community  — board members, administrators, faculty, staff and even students — play a role in maintaining the integrity and security of their school’s systems and data. Cybersecurity must be a perpetual and collaborative effort between leaders, faculty, staff and law enforcement professionals, especially as 5G powers the next wave of technological advances, which criminals undoubtedly are planning to exploit.

Christopher Mangano is vice president, Mercadien Technologies.