17 January 2020

Why Britain must not allow China’s Huawei to build its 5G network


Judging from our dealings with China, it can be hard to work out if Britain actually has a foreign policy. The way our stance on Beijing has spun so dramatically over the last couple of decades would have made a revolving door dizzy, as I’ve outlined before.

There is, however, a charitable case to be made that this bewildering series of volte face is in fact the strategy – that hedging our bets gives us room to manoeuvre between China and America depending on our contextual interests.

The latest example of this came on Tuesday, with Boris Johnson’s equivocal comments about Chinese company Huawei during an ITV interview. While America has been pushing the UK to follow their and Australia’s lead and ban Huawei from developing our 5G network, the PM was not so sure, claiming he didn’t want ‘to prejudice our national security’ but also ‘the British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology’. With that he left the door open to further involvement by the Chinese state in our telecommunications network.

We remain resolutely unsure. But decisions eventually have to be made, and the one on 5G is coming fast, with an announcement due by the end of the month. Despite having promised gigabit broadband for all, the government must resist the siren call of short-termism, strap itself to the national security mast and block Huawei’s proposed involvement in our 5G network.

This matters. 5G represents a new frontier of critical infrastructure that has the potential to transform the nation’s economy, transport, military and leisure in the twenty-first century. This is not like upgrading from 3G to 4G – 5G is a different game altogether, collapsing latency, ramping up network connectivity and sending download speeds into orbit. It is on the back of 5G that the long-fabled Internet of Things will be built, where billions of devices will be connected together, and the gap between the real and the virtual will melt in a white heat of sensors and software. From AI to healthcare, it will become one of the bedrocks of modern life. Whoever gets to build this system will have tremendous power, tremendous responsibility and potentially tremendous leverage over the UK: if you’ve built it, you know how to break it.

And that is what we’re talking about here. The security risk around 5G is not so much data interception – although that is part of the concern – but network availability. Some have argued that we could have our cake and eat it by isolating sensitive parts of the network from the rest, thereby granting us the benefits of Huawei’s technology without any of the national security risks. But plenty of people are sceptical that this is possible with 5G, at least as conventionally understood. Unlike 4G, it’s far more difficult to separate core functions from the ‘edge’ of the network, which will take on a greater processing burden than 4G’s periphery, blending the boundaries between the two, while non-core architecture provides a possible way into more core parts of the network. No, if you’re in with Huawei, you’re in – security risks and all.

But what exactly are those risks and why should they worry us? Huawei are a private company after all, and are at pains to point out that they’ve never engaged in cyber espionage.

The problem stems from Huawei’s relationship to the Chinese state. Chinese law forces private companies to act at the behest of the Chinese government when national security is invoked. Sure, you might argue that sounds on the surface rather like UK law, and anyway Huawei say they would resist any such coercion. But that argument forgets the type of state China is.

This is not a country inching towards democracy but one doubling down on totalitarianism. It is a single-party dictatorship which has brought the world surveillance systems that make Minority Report and 1984 look like blueprints rather than warnings – something which, incidentally, Huawei are deeply complicit in, as Tom Tugendhat MP has pointed out. This is a state that can change or circumvent the law whenever it wants, with little pushback – certainly not from a private firm which, if reports are to be believed, has already benefited from state-level theft of intellectual property. No Chinese court has ever ruled against the Chinese Communist Party. Are we really meant to think that, if lent on by the might of the Chinese state, Huawei would stand firm and risk everything it had to prevent the government getting involved with UK telecoms?

And this is the point. As Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull – who banned Huawei from Australia’s 5G infrastructure – points out, ‘a threat is capability plus intent’. Capability takes a long time to build, ‘but intent can change in a heartbeat’. Do we want to put the keys to the network, and with it the chance to shut down part or all of the system upon which so many of us will come to depend, into the hands of an authoritarian state that has a track record of cyberattacks on half-friends and enemies alike? In Turnbull’s phrasethis is not about looking for a smoking gun, the question to ask is whether this is a loaded gun’ – and to believe that there could be no possible future scenario in which China would deem it in their strategic interests to fire the gun, suggests either total naivety or utopian clairvoyance.

So why is the UK prevaricating? On the face of it, it seems odd that Britain is being so resistant to American overtures, especially given that the mood music on trade suggests we are prioritising a US-UK deal above all else.

One reason was offered by Boris Johnson himself: ‘the British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology’. But while it may – may – be the best out there at the moment, Huawei’s tech is hardly bug or blemish free. Just ask the National Cyber Security Centre, which oversees Huawei’s own UK Cyber Security Evaluation Centre and released a 2019 report highlighting ‘serious and systemic defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security competence.’ There is also a long list of examples of Huawei failing to fix security vulnerabilities. Whether backdoors were left open by mistake or to allow someone in, we’ll likely never know.

Boris has challenged Huawei sceptics to show him ‘an alternative’. He needn’t look very far – Scandinavia is developing just such alternatives with Nokia and Ericsson. They may not be quite as far on with the tech as Huawei, but they have the benefit of being overseen by European allies who are plugged into the same global security architecture as we are, and whose security goals more broadly align with our own. We should be doing all we can to support them, and close the 9-12 month development gap they have to Huawei.

Indeed, a bit of joined-up thinking over the last two decades would have put us in a stronger position now. Since the election there has rightly been a renewed focus on industrial strategy. But while it’s important to think about transport and levelling up the country, the most obvious reason we need an industrial strategy is so as to instigate strategic long-term planning on issues of critical (but neglected) importance to this country – such as the confluence of infrastructure and national security.

For too long we’ve been asleep at the wheel. Huawei have been in the UK since 2005, with BT using its equipment in some of their telecoms infrastructure. But, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind outlined on this site last year, in another example of the absence of joined-up thinking, ‘although BT had informed the Cabinet Office as early as 2003 of Huawei’s interest in becoming involved in UK telecommunications, the Cabinet Office did not refer the issue to ministers or even inform them until 2006, a year after the contract between BT and Huawei had been signed’. The government then did think it worth keeping an eye on what Huawei were doing, but the monitoring cell only became fully operational in 2011. Forward-planning this was not.

Now, as the moment of decision fast approaches, we can rectify that: we can wake up, get a grip of the wheel and decide which way we go. It’s time to follow our strongest allies and put the long-term security of the country ahead of short-term solutions. After all, Huawei is not the only way.

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Frank Lawton is the Deputy Editor of CapX