In sharp contradistinction to several other countries, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is reported to have concluded that any risks involved in using Huawei technology for 5G networks can be managed.
Authorities in the US, New Zealand and Australia have all taken steps to block the use of Huawei kit in their planned 5G networks, on the grounds that it could represent a security risk by allowing Chinese government access.
Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, is ex-Chinese military; and under Chinese law, all companies are required to ‘support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work’.
In the UK, network operator BT is already stripping out Huawei’s equipment from core parts of its existing 3G and 4G mobile networks, and has said it won’t use it in its planned 5G network.
However, the NCSC is believed to have concluded that the risks are containable. The UK government is currently conducting a review of telecoms infrastructure, due to be released this spring, and will take the NCSC’s findings into account.
In practical terms, it will be difficult to avoid the use of Huawe kit altogether, with the company the most dominant player in the field. As mobile network operator trade body the GSMA points out, “Actions that disrupt the equipment supply for the various segments of the network (access, transport and core), will increase costs to European operators, businesses and citizens; delay 5G deployment by years across Europe and potentially also jeopardise the functioning of existing 4G networks upon which 5G is intended to be built.”
Similarly, Joe Hancock, cyber security lead at law firm Mishcon de Reya, comments: “It’s highly unlikely that we will be able to develop next generation technologies such as 5G mobile networks, autonomous vehicles or artificial intelligence systems without foreign technology. The U.K. doesn’t have the scale of investment or industry required. “
If the UK government does indeed decide to act on the NCSC’s findings, it could affect decisions elsewhere in the world – and, in particular, undermine US efforts to get Huawei equipment banned around the world.
As a source tells the Financial Times, “Other nations can make the argument that if the British are confident of mitigation against national security threats, then they can also reassure their publics and the US administration that they are acting in a prudent manner in continuing to allow their telecommunications service providers to use Chinese components as long as they take the kinds of precautions recommended by the British.”
However, the ‘leak’ to the Financial Times may not be all that it seems. Over the last couple of days, a planned trip to China by UK chancellor Philip Hammond has apparently been scrapped following some decidedly tactless comments from defence secretary Gavin Williamson.
Williamson announced that the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would be sent to a disputed area of the Pacific, adding that the UK was prepared to use ‘lethal force’ to maintain international law.
Chinese vice premier Hu Chunhua was reportedly not best pleased and called off the trip, severely threatening British attempts to achieve a trade deal with China post-Brexit.
The information leaked about the NCSC’s conclusions is extremely vague – and in any case, will act only as a recommendation. It’s not likely to upset the US too much. But while it’s far from a commitment to use Huawei kit, could the fact that it’s suddenly in the public domain now perhaps soothe UK-China tensions just a little, at a particularly sensitive time?