Huawei has been given the green light to work on Britain’s 5G infrastructure. The decision was made during a meeting of the National Security Council yesterday morning and follows months of contention within the government and Parliament over the role that the company should have, if any, in Britain’s telecommunications.
The company, designated a “high risk vendor”, will build “non-core” elements of the country’s 5G network. It will be banned from the “core” of the network and from areas of unique interest such as military and nuclear facilities. Huawei will also have its share of the market capped at 35%.
Founded in China in 1987, Huawei is now a world leader in the telecommunications technology which the British government is hoping to use to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, keep pace with other countries, and keeps the cost of 5G kits low.
Questions have been raised, however, at the links between the company and the Chinese government. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China suggests that any individual or company must assist the government in intelligence gathering if asked to do so. Beijing and Huawei dispute this, though critics argue that Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s national infrastructure would compromise the country’s national security. Huawei has repeatedly said it is a private company and is not subject to Chinese state interference.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat – the former Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee – has argued that giving Huawei a green light is too much of a risk. “Our choice of provider should not be about economics, but about sovereignty,” he wrote in The Daily Mail.
“The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign. Huawei’s 5G sets us on a path that undermines our autonomy and the repercussions could be grave.” Commenting on the decision made yesterday morning, he said it “does not close the UK’s networks to a frequently malign international actor.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Leader, has said that it is “utterly bizarre” to allow the company access.
A Labour spokesperson commented that the government have “refused to take our technological sovereignty seriously and failed to invest in home-grown alternatives to Huawei. As a result, they’re in the ludicrous position of having to choose between the UK’s security concerns and our infrastructure needs.”
MI5 and GCHQ have both advised that the security risks of letting Huawei operate “non core” parts of the network can be managed. Indeed, although the National Cyber Security Centre released a report on Huawei in July 2018 which “exposed new risks in the UK telecommunications networks”, they have claimed the risk is manageable. The Centre has said they possess “a unique oversight and understanding of Huawei engineering and cyber security” and that the risks can be brought down to “acceptable levels”.
However, the capacity of the NCSC to deal with any security risk is doubted by industry experts. Citing the failure of the government to cope with cyber threats against UK universities and their research, one expert in internet security said “the NCSC can’t do s***.”
Critics of the company are not limited to the UK. Various figures in Washington have called on Britain not to allow Huawei to contribute to British telecommunications. Matt Pottinger, the President’s deputy National Security Adviser, told British ministers this month that allowing Huawei into Britain’s infrastructure would put transatlantic intelligence sharing at risk.
Another senior US official also claimed that, if Huawei is given a role, “Congress has made it clear they will want an evaluation of our intelligence sharing.”
The UK is currently a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing network. Through the network, Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand share vital intelligence. The logical concern is that vulnerability in one of the countries’ national security will allow for vulnerabilities in others’. Australia and New Zealand have already joined the US in banning Huawei from participating in their 5G networks.
Regarding the decision made this morning, US officials also believe the ban on Huawei’s involvement in “core” infrastructure will not stymie vulnerabilities in British national security. A White House source has claimed the administration is “disappointed” at the outcome of yesterday’s NSC meeting. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, will visit Downing Street today for a two-day visit, but British officials have said that Washington had offered no new intelligence on the security risks of using Huawei equipment.
‘A UK-specific solution’
Some critics of the US position argue that the Trump administration merely wants to weaken China’s strong position in the 5G telecommunications markets and that Britain is in the midst of a US-China tech “cold war”. Beijing had warned the UK that there could be “substantial” repercussions if the technology company was banned outright.
Baroness Morgan, the Secretary of State for Culture, said, “We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security. High-risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks.
“This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now.”