Last week, the Trump administration warned the German government that if it uses 5G wireless technology built by China’s Huawei, Washington will curtail intelligence sharing with its Nato ally. American officials are concerned that Berlin’s willingness to host Chinese technology threatens Nato security, and will give cover to other countries considering letting Huawei into their telecommunications systems. Yet Washington’s blunt statement might also have been a shot across Britain’s bow.
Far more than Germany, Britain is a key intelligence partner of the United States, the cornerstone of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ community. If Whitehall permits Huawei to set up 5G networks in Britain, the White House will face the unpleasant choice of ignoring its deeply held concerns about Huawei’s potential security risks or possibly cutting back intelligence cooperation with its closest ally. More than any other potential disagreement between across the Atlantic, the Huawei case could threaten the ‘special relationship’.
Britain’s mandarins are steadily moving towards accepting Huawei as one of the builders of the country’s 5G networks. Recently, the National Cyber Security Centre which is part of GCHQ, the government’s signals intelligence department, announced that it could manage the threat of Huawei being able to use its network to spy on the UK. This follows statements by the head of MI6, Alex Younger, who raised concerns about Huawei but also criticised the idea of a blanket ban.
At the centre of the Huawei issue is the way that 5G promises to change the way we communicate digitally. First, its potential to massively expand the data capacity of networks, means that just about everything comprising the ‘internet of things,’ from dishwashers to cars, may one day be linked together. This could provide unimaginable amounts of personal data to the companies that run these networks and provide cloud storage.
Second, 5G operates differently from previous cellular technology, and is based on shorter-range base stations that will link directly to wireless modems or phones, bypassing the wired fibre optics that currently are brought into homes and businesses and which are connected in turn to the large local cell towers that dot the landscape. This is the shift from ‘radio access networks’ to ‘software-defined networks’. US telecommunications giant AT&T, for example, plans to install software-powered ‘white box’ routers on its 60,000 cell towers. The software-driven approach to 5G will allow for much greater centralisation because the system is now directly programmable by network controllers.
All this means that allowing Huawei into a country’s domestic telecommunications network means giving it unparalleled access to homes, businesses, schools and hospitals. It also raises the possibility of massive surveillance through both hardware and software routes. Since usage and storage demands can be far more quickly reallocated by centralised controllers, the ability to divert or copy information to alternate sites is also increased.
Giving Huawei such reach inside Britain is a potential problem made even worse by China’s new national intelligence law, whose Article 7 mandates that Chinese individuals and business cooperate with the central government and must ‘provide assistance and cooperate in national intelligence work.’ There is little reason to believe that Huawei, for all its protestations of independence, could ignore Beijing’s demands to turn over data or use its networks, if it’s technically possible, for espionage purposes.
Meanwhile, Chinese spying on foreign countries continues to increase. The US Navy, for example, recently concluded that it was ‘under siege’ from a relentless cyber-espionage campaign directed by Beijing (and Moscow) which aimed to steal military secrets. Despite promises made by Chinese President Xi Jinping to former US President Barack Obama that his country would curtail espionage against America, the opposite is occurring.
The UK differs from Germany, in that London has not allowed Huawei into its government networks, and also has demanded changes in the company’s security and engineering systems that could cost up to £2 billion to carry out. Yet, if the government does decide to allow Huawei into 5G commercial networks, it may be too difficult to monitor any unauthorised use of data by the company. It is also not inconceivable that, should it be determined that Huawei poses no commercial threat, sometime in the future it may be allowed to participate in government communications systems.
If London allows Huawei into Britain, there can be little confidence that the Chinese-built networks won’t be used in some way at some point in time to illicitly gather information. And as the Sino-US global competition grows ever more intense, that could possibly prompt Washington to reassess the level of intelligence it shares with the UK.
Any type of degradation in the intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and UK would have political ramifications, and quite possibly drive a wedge between the two allies. Washington’s warning to Berlin about allowing Huawei into its 5G networks should be listened to just as carefully in London.