According to the FBI and various news outlets, the Nashville RV bomb set off on Christmas morning was the work of Anthony Warner, who died in the blast. Nobody was killed, largely because the RV had loudspeakers warning people to evacuate, but an AT&T networking hub was severely damaged in the blast, leading to widespread telephone, internet, and cellular outages. When questioning known associates of the bomber, FBI agents have been asking if they heard him express distrust of 5G technology, so it’s possible that could be his motive.
If it is, this bombing would be the latest in many acts of vandalism and violence against cell phone infrastructure sites.
To help our readers spread good information about this topic, I’m going to cover a few of the popular 5G conspiracy theories and explain why they are fundamentally impossible. To do this, I’m going to draw on my experience as an amateur radio operator. I hold the FCC’s highest level license for amateur radio and have worked with radio equipment similar to that used on cell phone sites, so I have a pretty good idea of what’s possible and what’s not.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories aren’t something we normally address here, but it’s becoming a growing public safety issue. The idea that 5G technology is harmful to people and the environment has gained a lot of traction on the internet. Earlier this year, people in the UK started thinking that 5G towers were spreading COVID-19, and as a result over 40 employees were attacked (at least one was stabbed), and 77 cell sites were burnt.
In the United States, attacks have happened in several states, including a number of unsolved attacks in Tennessee earlier this year, prompting DHS to release a warning to infrastructure operators. With a number of sites burnt, causing over $100,000 in damage, and others shut off by damaging breakers, it definitely makes sense that they’d be seeing if Warner was motivated by 5G paranoia, and possibly not for the first time.
5G technology works in two different ways. For long range networking, where a tower needs to communicate with phones and other devices from up to miles away, 5G uses a patch of radio spectrum just below 6 GHz (often called Sub 6), and there’s no fundamental difference between that and other types of cell towers (3G, 4G). In fact, they’re not much different from your home or office’s wifi access points.
The second kind of 5G technology uses frequencies of around 30 GHz, also known as “millimeter waves.” These frequencies haven’t been used much in the past because they can only propagate effectively over short distances, and are easily blocked by the most minor of barriers. It’s physically impossible for the waves to penetrate beyond the outermost layer of human skin, and definitely can’t get through the walls of your home. They do allow for tremendous data transfer speeds, though, so cell companies are putting millimeter wave sites in urban areas where people can have a direct line of sight to them and be close by.
For pedestrians and vehicles on the street, millimeter wave 5G has great advantages. Not only are speeds much greater, but latency (time lag in the network) is very low. Automotive companies are already planning to use the high speed data available for vehicle-to-vehicle communication in autonomous vehicles, and even remote control of vehicles by humans in case autonomous systems fail.
5G & COVID-19
2020’s biggest 5G conspiracy theory revolves around the idea that 5G cell sites can somehow infect people with the coronavirus. This one is also the easiest to debunk.
Cell phone site transmitters, and even the closer millimeter wave sites in some cities, simply can’t do that. Viruses spread via, well, viruses. Viral particles straddle the line between what’s alive and what’s not. They float around in liquids or in the air, and when given the opportunity, latch onto living cells. They then poke into the cell and hijack it with their own DNA instructions, forcing the cell to make more copies of the virus until it explodes, further spreading the virus.
Radio equipment can only spread radio waves. This isn’t Star Trek, where we can convert energy into matter (and vice versa) to transport living cells or virus particles to other places. Scotty can’t beam you up, nor can AT&T beam a virus down to you. Such a thing might be possible in a few hundred years, but the technology simply does not exist to do that in 2020.
If teleportation of small particles were possible, you can bet that militaries, terrorists, and other people would be using that capability frequently to sicken important people. The fact that it took a number of months before the President of the US got infected with the virus tells you all you need to know there.
If the sites had hidden compartments with the ability to spread COVID in some sort of aerosol, that wouldn’t work either. The particles don’t survive long enough in the air (especially outdoors and in sunlight) long enough to infect people more than a few feet away. A tower, dozens or hundreds of feet in the air wouldn’t be able to give anyone nearby a viral infection. Sites on city streets are also out of hand’s reach, and couldn’t infect you.
5G As A Pain Compliance Weapon
Another conspiracy theory is that 5G towers are on standby to be used against civilian populations in the event of unrest and rioting against the New World Order. Once the (insert your favorite scapegoat group here) overlords take everyone’s freedom away, people won’t be able to fight back because the 5G network can make everyone in the neighborhood writhe in agony whenever the bad guys want.
This theory is based on a half-truth. The US military has a weapon called the Active Denial System that does use millimeter waves. It pumps tens or hundreds of thousands of watts (as much as a Tesla Supercharger) through a highly directional antenna to give a very strong signal a ways away from the target. If they aim the antenna at people, they experience a burning sensation in the outermost layer of the skin, but suffer no permanent damage. The military uses the system to suppress riots.
5G millimeter wave sites use a similar set of frequencies, but don’t have anywhere even remotely close to the power or antenna directionality of the Active Denial System or similar systems. For the 5G network to be useful as a pain compliance weapon, it would require a TON of power and much larger antennas than we see being installed, along with many more antennas aiming in nearly every direction. You’d see massive wires going up to each station, and you’d see lots of new power lines in your city to support the power needed for thousands of Active Denial Systems in an area. You’d likely also see several new power plants or thousands of new generators placed in every neighborhood.
In other words, 5G infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive, take up way too much space, and be a lot more visible if it were intended to cause us pain when “they” want it to.
It’s also worth noting that the Trump Administration requested that the National Guard find one to use earlier this year when protests and rioting occurred near the White House. The National Guard doesn’t own a unit and others could not be brought in. If the President of the US can’t get one, it’s extremely unlikely that a secret, miniaturized version (probably physically impossible) could be installed in every neighborhood aiming at every angle.
5G Spying Fears
While 5G technology wouldn’t be able to directly spy on you in your home or see you naked like airport scanners, this last one I’m going to cover does have some truth to it.
When 5G trials first rolled out, some carriers were using Huawei networking equipment, largely because the Chinese company was so far ahead of everyone else at the time. With lower costs, it’s a no brainer to buy Chinese equipment to build out 5G networks, at least until you consider their ties with the Chinese government, including funding and laws requiring they cooperate with their government. Officials in the Trump administration fear that Huawei’s equipment could be built with backdoors, effectively serving as a Trojan Horse for Chinese spies.
This doesn’t make 5G technology itself fundamentally insecure. If this is a valid concern, carriers just need to use gear that doesn’t come from China or any other source where spy code could be snuck into the supply chain.
On the other hand, the United States government is known to use supply chain attacks against other countries and domestically. Government agencies like the NSA are now known to regularly intercept shipments of computer equipment to their targets to insert spying gear. While the Trump administration may be able to keep Chinese supply chain hackers out, they certainly aren’t going to keep their own hackers out.
In fact, the US government does quite the opposite. Leaked documents show that they cooperate with AT&T to scoop up internet traffic on a massive scale for their spying operations. AT&T allows the NSA and others to set up special rooms with “splitters” to keep a copy of everything people do online, and then sift through it later if needed for an investigation.
Once again, though, this doesn’t implicate 5G technology itself. Government spying of computer networks, phone calls, and any other data they could get their hands on (legally or otherwise) is nothing new, and predates cellular phones entirely. If that’s going to go on, it’s going to happen with 5G, just like it happened with 4G. Unless there are serious reforms, it’s going to happen with 6G and any other subsequent “G” we ever see.
For those still concerned about privacy after learning of all this, I’d recommend reading the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s guide to protecting yourself from surveillance instead of taking any kind of violent action against governments and corporations which could repair their gear within a few days or weeks.
Some Final Thoughts
Ironically, the bomber might have actually disrupted a spying operation by damaging AT&T’s building and equipment, which may itself be a separate motive for the attack. Without a public manifesto or other message sent prior to the blast that we are currently aware of, we may never know what his true motives were.
What we do know is that 5G paranoia has fueled sabotage and violence in the past, and will likely fuel more in the future. Conspiracy theorists DO care about the society they live in, or they wouldn’t go through all the trouble of attacking cell phone sites and possibly bombing buildings over it. If we can redirect that energy to useful things, like working for government reforms to hold intelligence agencies accountable and/or promote more transparency in government, we could all make the world a better place.
To do that, we need to get the truth out about real problems, not spread impossible conspiracy theories.
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