In the coming days Boris Johnson will announce whether to allow Huawei-manufactured equipment to be used in Britain’s 5G network. Tremendous pressure has been exerted by the US to ban the use of this equipment, with security concerns cited, and a number of prominent voices in the British system have voiced their opposition to a favourable decision for the Chinese telecoms giant. It seems pretty clear cut that Huawei is in thrall to the Chinese government (the biggest surprise is perhaps that this comes as a surprise to anyone at all), yet it seems increasingly likely that Boris will allow the use of this equipment in “non-core” elements of the network. This is a low moment for the Britain – we must ensure that we are never in this situation again.
We should not be allowing Huawei access to our systems. China is well known to use technology to spy on other countries (ally and foe alike). It is well known to steal industrial and technological secrets. It is also well known to be extending its influence and power across the world, not least through its Belt and Road initiative. Then combine this with the fact that every Chinese company has an obligation to work with the Chinese government when requested. That it recently emerged that a number of Huawei employees are ex members of the Chinese secret service. That alarming (yet, again, unsurprising) incidents of obvious espionage committed through Huawei equipment filter through into the press – such as the hacking of the African Union headquarters, in which the AU’s newly installed Huawei equipment was found to be most active between midnight and 2AM every night, when most employees had gone home, between January 2012 and January 2017. AU technicians revealed that the organisation’s secret data was being copied on to servers in Shanghai. All taken together, the facts, on a basis purely of national security, build a pretty compelling case for not allowing Huawei anywhere near our nation’s critical infrastructure.
There are, of course, strong arguments for why we are able to use Huawei equipment. For a start, it is only being proposed that their equipment be used for non-core elements of the network, such as antennae, whilst not allowing them access to the more critical elements where data is stored. The UK also has a centre specifically devoted to screening all Huawei equipment before it is used in the UK, the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which takes apart and examines Huawei kit to examine it for any potential security concerns, then requiring Huawei to address these concerns before the kit is deemed fit for use. This centre has been in operation since 2010, meaning, theoretically, that our intelligence services should have a good idea of Huawei’s capabilities and of any disturbing patterns or trends in what they examine. Then there is the cost to the economy of not allowing the company’s equipment. Other suppliers, including Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung, are said to be one and a half to two years away from developing equivalent technology and, when they do, their versions will be more expensive. All told, some estimates predict that this will cost the UK economy £7 billion.
On top of this, the UK should entirely be making its own foreign policy and not bowing to heavy pressure from allies, no matter how important. It is important, both as a precedent and a signal to the world, friend and foe alike, that Britain is clearly known to be making its own decisions as it strikes out into the world post-Brexit. After all, pragmatism and even fairness are traits for which this country has a good reputation. What’s more, with an apparent reputation for some of the best intelligence forces in the world, it is in any case unlikely that the US would, in reality, want to damage its agencies’ relationship the UK agencies and jeopardise the flow of intelligence from us to them.
Yet nonetheless, far more compelling are the reasons why we should not allow Huawei into our networks. In the first place, even non-core elements of the network could be used to cripple our systems should it suit a hostile power. Any tampering with antennae, for instance, could stop the communication of vital messages in a time of national crisis. In terms of the HCSEC, in spite of its existence and oversight of components and software used, this organisation itself has said that there is still a danger posed by the use of Huawei equipment. In a report published last March, it noted that it “continued to identify significantly increased risk to UK operators, which requires ongoing management and mitigation”, then going on to say that the organisation can only give “limited assurance that the long-term security risks can be managed in the Huawei equipment currently deployed in the UK”. Hardly a ringing endorsement of our stated ability to prevent any dangers from using this Chinese-manufactured gear. And we know that China attempts to steal UK secrets, whether in industry, research or government. It was only in December 2018 that the UK and US together publicly accused China of a worldwide campaign of cyber attacks aimed at stealing the nations’ trade secrets. It is therefore absurd that a country wants to spy on us, indeed is known to be aggressively spying on us and stealing our data and our secrets, and we are still letting them into our systems. Even if we can control the risks (not withstanding the heavy caveats beginning this paragraph), the message this sends to our aggressors is that of British softness and naivety. It will only encourage them to be more aggressive, more audacious.
Moreover, again even if we could manage the risk, the diplomatic and strategic impact of a favourable decision would be highly harmful, not just to our allies, but also to ourselves. Yes, the US will likely still want to work with our intelligence agencies, but we would be undermining them (who, let’s not forget, are the cornerstone of western, indeed global, security) on an issue on which they are right and, what’s more, on an issue of high geopolitical importance. For there is no doubt that China is playing an aggressive, expansionist game (not necessarily to expand their territory, but certainly to expand their influence until they dictate the terms to the world). For all the world to see, they are throwing money and cheap products at countries in order to insert their tentacles into other states. They are propping up their own industry in order to pump global markets with cheap goods until they secure monopolies and the dependance of other countries on Chinese industry (which surely should set off alarm bells in Europe, given their great song and dance about potential but still theoretical British state aid). They are loaning massive debts to strategically important but fragile countries in order to gain leverage over them and in return for large concessions (see the succession of countries denouncing Taiwan and even countries paying off debts by leasing China huge naval harbours). China is gaming the system, and it must be shown that there will be a response. This of course should not be a military response, but one that is nuanced but fair. Banning companies such as Huawei, which are clearly being used as tools in an overarching national strategy, would therefore seem like a good start. And for once, we have an American administration willing to be clear about the fact that such behaviour is unacceptable – and, whatever you think of the current president’s other policies, previous administrations have only, through their lack of response or even challenge, inadvertently encouraged such behaviour by nations such as China. It would be outrageous if the countries committed to the international rules-based order, including Britain, were now to desert the US just as it takes the clearest stand yet for international fairness and justice. It would be to alienate the US on the world stage and allow China to claim some sort of moral high ground over the US, when they are the ones in the wrong. It would be a slight to the US that may be hard for some in the American administration to forget. It would also be a slight to the US that the UK should be ashamed of.
The other signal it sends is that of endorsing the use of Huawei, paving the way for other countries, many quite likely with far less robust defence systems and checks than even us, to also use the company’s equipment. Seeing Britain – as noted, with a reputation for pragmatism and fairness – approving the use of Huawei could encourage others to follow suit. Britain would thereby be assisting the Chinese government with getting their tentacles into other states. And if that alone is not bad enough, let’s not forget that increased Chinese influence over other nations is not good for British, and general western, international interests.
However, the noises coming from Whitehall are that the use of Huawei is going to be approved. Perhaps there is information available to Boris Johnson and his advisors indicating that the UK would lose a step irretrievably in the global economy by delaying the roll out of the technology, as was indicated in a report in April 2019 by Mobile UK, the trade group representing the UK’s network operators, including O2, EE, Vodafone and Three. Leadership in technical areas could be highly beneficial to the UK economy (with the knock-on effect of greater revenues to spend on defence, of course), and to sacrifice it when such a sacrifice could be avoided would be undesirable. But very clearly, the government would be choosing economic gain over prudence in security. It’s taking a risk that the diplomatic fallout won’t be too severe and that no incidents will occur in the near future which could cause these defensive trade-offs to become exposed. We must hope that it is a risk that pays off, as far as it can. But we should never have been in this position. And we must make sure that we never are again.
Action must be taken immediately to ensure that come the rollout of the next generation of technology, the outlook is very different. There appear, at the moment, to be two options most obvious to the government. One is to both invest in and encourage R&D in homegrown technology. Given how crucial 5G is (as no doubt will be its successors) to national interests, it seems dangerous that only five companies (two of which are Chinese, Huawei and ZTE, alongside Ericsson, Nokia and Sumsung) are competing to provide this technology. Creating alternative competitors and, more to the point, homegrown, trustworthy competitors would seem imperative. The second option is one that has been proposed by the big telecom companies, including BT, Vodafone, and Telefonica. They argue that the design of hardware and software in such technology should be standardised. Such standardised designs would enable other companies to supply the infrastructure needed to support technology such as 5G, thereby increasing the number of options available to government and opening up the market to more benign, trustworthy companies. It would also have the added advantage of more transparency, given the universal design of the infrastructure, which would remove many of the security concerns around suppliers and their links to national governments. Such standardisation would require cooperation with other nations – but this will clearly not be hard to come by, given the widespread suspicion of and opposition to Huawei’s current stranglehold over the market. No doubt the government could also find other options. But they must take action for us never to be in this position again. For this is a low moment for Britain.