Imagine the following medieval conversation:
King: “We need to build a castle at Dover. ‘Tis the key to England.”
Courtier: “Sire, the French build excellent castles at fantastic prices. Of course, we should not allow them anywhere near the keep, but no harm if they construct the moat and curtain walls.”
Returning to the 21st century, 5G might be said to be the ‘key to England’. Many times faster than 4G, the network will be the technological foundation of our society for the next few decades. It will carry many of our communications, enable the operation of systems, including driverless cars, and be indispensable to our military and our security.
Today comes the news that the government has decided to allow Huawei a role in building parts of the UK’s 5G network, despite the reported opposition of several ministers. We don’t yet know the details – and there has been no formal confirmation from the government – but might this mean that Huawei will supply more than just basic equipment? If so, we should be deeply worried.
Huawei’s formidable publicity machine will try to convince you that it is a private company. It is difficult to know, given the lack of transparency. But the arrests of Canadian citizens in China after extradition proceedings were announced in Canada against Huawei’s chief financial officer appears to be a worrying sign of the close relations between company and state.
Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei declared that it would be commercial suicide to go against the interests of customers. But he knows that a quicker method of suicide would be to go against the wishes of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party. And recent national security laws oblige individuals and organisations to cooperate with the CCP’s intelligence services.
Huawei certainly has form. Every night over several years, information from the African Union HQ in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, reportedly bled to servers in Shanghai. The main supplier of communication technology systems in the building? Huawei.
Earlier this year, a Chinese employee of Huawei was arrested in Poland over allegations of spying. In the United States, the company faces a case for allegedly stealing technology on ‘Tappy’, a mobile phone testing system. Huawei is also accused of offering bonuses to its staff for an unusual form of productivity: technological theft.
It might be overreacting to say that in times of hostility the CCP could switch off our communications, or degrade them. But the crucial question is whether it is responsible to risk your long-term security by possibly placing it in the hands of the CCP. Like any bully, the CCP loves to throw around the political playground accusations of which it is pre-eminently guilty. Anyone who opposes it has a ‘cold war mentality’. Read its internal documents, listen to its propaganda: internal setbacks are blamed on ‘hostile foreign forces’.
Arguments such as the above often elicit the reply: “But what about other suppliers? Do you imagine that the CIA and NSA don’t spy?” They clearly do, but call me naïve: they don’t spy on us. And even if they did, who would you rather possess your information: a country which shares your values and has been an ally for over 100 years? Or a country with no allies? Except one: North Korea.
The government has been eager to insist that Huawei’s involvement in Britain is not a threat. It has set up a ‘cell’ to detect any untoward insertions or activity in Huawei’s current UK systems. Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, says the oversight regime in Britain for Huawei is ‘arguably the toughest and most rigorous’ in the world. In an FT article, an ex-GCHQ head claims that there is a ‘growing hysteria over Chinese tech’ and that the idea that the use of any Chinese technology ‘in any part of a 5G network represents an unacceptable risk are nonsense’.
I would be quick to acknowledge my technological incompetence. But it seems that I am in good company. Take Parliament’s Joint Intelligence Committee. It warned in 2013 that a cyber attack ‘would be very difficult to detect or prevent and could enable the Chinese to intercept covertly or disrupt traffic passing through Huawei-supplied networks’. Or take Mike Burgess, head of the Australian Signals Directorate – Australia’s version of GCHQ: “The distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G networks. That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network.”
It also doesn’t take a tech expert to know that 5G will be more complicated than 4G. Can we be confident that our GCHQ experts can match those of a richly-resourced Huawei? After all, it is far easier to hide a needle in a haystack than find one. When so much of our future prosperity and security depend on 5G, this is not a risk we should take.
Nor should we take a risk with our ‘Five Eyes’ alliance. If the UK has any pretensions to remain as a world player, this alliance is vital. It is not just about sharing intelligence, but about sharing the means of collecting intelligence. If the UK allows Huawei inside our systems, will our allies still share their secrets with us?
The price of Huawei’s involvement seems to be that our allies will distance themselves from us in the future. This risks jeopardising our long-term security and relations with our allies. And it isn’t a price worth paying.
Meanwhile, dear reader, it is your decision whether to buy a Huawei mobile. You may be happy to risk your data ending up in the hands of a regime which puts over a million of its citizens in concentration camps and arrests lawyers for defending human rights activists. But others of us would prefer that the government does not make that decision on our behalf.