Comment Writer Molly Elliot discusses the fears surrounding the UK government’s decision to allow Huawei to support some of the UK’s 5G networks
On the 28th of January, the British Government announced its decision to allow the telecoms company Huawei to provide support to areas of the UK 5G network. Huawei is known to US and UK governments as a ‘high risk vendor’ due to suspected (but unconfirmed) links to the Chinese government. The 5G technology will be used to provide faster data connections for mobile phones and for connecting the expanding Internet of Things, for example in new driverless car technology and critical communications. The company is the second largest global network equipment supplier, and will be implemented into British 5G networks with regulations, and a 35% cap on its presence within the network.
The proposed threats of Huawei’s integration into networks has been investigated by the US National Security Agency (NSA), who experienced a document leak in 2013, by infamous former employee Edward Snowden. The documents described the Huawei threat as multifaceted – an economic as well as security issue. The claim is that Huawei has links to the People’s Liberation Army, which is the defence sector of the Chinese state. According to the New York Times, the US cites the fact that Huawei’s head of Strategy, Ren Zhengfei, previously worked for the People’s Liberation Army as evidence for Chinese ‘back doors’ for spying through Huawei networks.
UK politicians on both sides have also expressed strong opposition to the decision, a ‘Tory rebellion’ has been declared by The Guardian over the matter. The former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, took to Twitter to call the decision ‘a mistake.’ The wide spread, non-partisan opposition is particularly shocking, and leaves questions unanswered – what does Boris Johnson know that the rest of the UK (and America) do not? In his statement on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab alluded to this, boldly stating that ‘we know more about Huawei, and the risks it poses, than any other country in the world’.
Intelligence gathering through network spying is not a tactic used only by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The American NSA – according to the Edward Snowden leaks – has reportedly spied on the Chinese Government and Huawei, creating their own network ‘back doors’. According to Spiegel the operation carried out against Huawei, named ‘Shotgiant’, began in 2009. It is hard to deny that America may have interests other than purely security in keeping Huawei out of its markets.
The NSA reports found no concrete evidence that Huawei is used by the Chinese state, yet they still advise against its integration into their markets. Other factors such as American isolationism could be at play here. One argument given by the British government is that Huawei already functions within our 4G networks, so the limited 5G clearance will not have a significant impact on security. Not everyone is surprised that the UK has given Huawei the green light. Depending on who you decide to listen to, Huawei in the UK is a devastating move or a sensible choice for the efficient implementation of 5G. Each party has different interests and priorities. Huawei’s global market dominance cannot be ignored as another threat perceived by the US.
Another revelation comes in light of Boris Johnson’s decision. Although the decision seeks to heavily regulate Huawei, it directly disobeyed the strong warnings issued by various US officials. The US may not have as much political influence as it may have assumed – especially in light of Brexit – and despite the warnings, it looks as though intelligence sharing between the two countries will not be greatly affected by the Huawei decision.
Cyber security in the telecommunications industry is much bigger than Huawei. If both China and America are busy creating electronic back doors, some argue the UK has made the right decision, to allow but restrict Huawei in supplying 5G. Telecommunications as an industry accepts large risks every day in order to keep the public connected. The Huawei fears could be seen as a drop in the ocean of cyber security risks we ultimately accept in order to access the internet.