Huawei is a Chinese business which has grown to become the world’s largest telecommunications equipment vendor.
Reports of its equipment being banned as nations seek to develop their 5G networks show little sign of stopping, and Western bodies including the EU and NATO have been called on to establish a joint position on their security risks.
Huawei’s equipment occupies every step of the network chain between our laptops and phones through to the data centres hosting the content we want to access.
Although it sells laptops and phones too, Huawei’s equipment is especially prominent in the parts of the network closer to the data centres, and it’s this equipment which is raising concerns.
Network switches, gateways, routers, and bridges – the kit that controls how and where data is sent – is what Huawei really does. These core infrastructure devices touch everything traversing the internet and are critical to it functioning properly.
Officials in the UK have defended granting the company restricted access to build “non-core” infrastructure such as antennas – potentially facing limits on how much of the market share it will be allowed to hold – but blocking it from involvement in the most sensitive areas of the network with the main equipment it builds.
However part of the generational advantage of 5G is that it blurs the distinctions between “core” and “non-core” elements of the network, with even elements towards the edge being able to provide some critical functionality.
Concerns about Beijing
Three nations in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, have effectively prohibited the installation of Huawei equipment as part of the next generation of telecommunications equipment. Canada is expected to state its position within the coming months.
Elsewhere, nations including India and Germany have expressed their concerns about including Huawei equipment as they upgrade telecommunications infrastructure for 5G.
Two men working in the Polish telecommunications industry were detained earlier this year on suspicion of spying: a Chinese man employed by Huawei, formerly an attache at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk; and a Polish national who was formerly a counter-intelligence officer. The Huawei employee was immediately sacked for bringing the company into disrepute.
Huawei has been accused by US intelligence of being funded by Chinese state security, and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has said the company poses a threat to national security albeit one which the head of the NCSC has said the UK established the “toughest and most rigorous oversight regime in the world” to manage.
But this hasn’t won over the US administration. President Donald Trump called Mr Johnson ahead of his government’s decision on what role Huawei should be permitted to play within the UK’s 5G infrastructure to reiterate that, were the UK to grant the Chinese company any access at all, Washington would reassess its intelligence sharing relationship with the UK.
Sir Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, has said he does not expect the UK’s relationship with America to suffer if Britain decides to give its domestic telcos the green light to use Huawei equipment.
His statement is apparently indicative of the attitude in White Hall that the US is bluffing in an attempt to force the UK to comply with its own position on the company.
Huawei has accused the US of using concerns about national security to increase pressure on China as part of the ongoing trade talks between the two countries.
In the face of this criticism and suggestions of impropriety, the company has consistently pointed out that there has never been any evidence suggesting its equipment is more faulty or suspicious than that of its competitors.
Huawei was founded in China in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. His connections to the military and to the Communist Party, alongside those of senior Huawei executives, have been cited as a security concern for foreign customers.
Alongside this, even if there is no evidence of bad action on behalf of the company, Western security officials have been especially wary of China’s foreign policy, including its alleged ambitions to use business ties in foreign countries as elements of warfare.
Much of this wariness can trace its origin to 1999, when two Chinese Air Force colonels published a book of military strategy which was translated into English as Unrestricted Warfare and which described the strategy needed to win a conflict with the US.
It formulated the idea that non-military means can be used to challenge a rival nation, including attacking telecommunications networks, or what might be called cyber war.
Academics including Ofer Fridman, an expert in modern warfare, have suggested that the translated title is more incendiary than the original Chinese phrase – which could be read “warfare beyond boundaries” – but the assumed sentiment has influenced Western thought about China.
Economic warfare also comprised a section of the book, and in December, the Five Eyes alliance and others collectively condemned China for its active cyber espionage activities, declaring that it was engaging in the hostile theft of intellectual property.
Although a spokesman for the Polish security services said the allegations in the Polish espionage case related to individual actions and were not linked directly to Huawei, the ability – as alleged – for the Chinese state to place a spy within the company’s staff will further worry Western nations over the potential risks posed by working with Huawei.
Spying or worse
Huawei’s networking equipment could potentially facilitate espionage, although it has not been detected doing so, and any evidence that Huawei equipment manipulated or monitored the data it routed would lead to an immediate response from all companies using it. It would have to be a single-time action.
This has prompted the concern that the equipment could be made to not function by the company, or the Chinese government, to essentially take down telecommunications infrastructure during a time of international crisis. Such a move would inevitably compound the crisis and potentially have a critically damaging impact on the West’s ability to respond to Beijing’s action.
As described by the Australian government, Huawei was “likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government” and as such it would not be capable of resisting directions from Beijing to include a capacity to bring down the network or to manipulate the traffic its devices handled.
The company’s exposure to these directions are acknowledged in the UK where the NCSC has said that it has assumed, as part of its security evaluation, that the Chinese state “could compel anyone in China to do anything (which they’ve now codified in their National Intelligence Law)” and would indeed “carry out cyber attacks against the UK at some point (which we’ve recently publicly confirmed)”.
But the lack of evidence of Huawei’s role in conducting espionage on behalf of Beijing by using implants within its own equipment is significant. Although the company has caught conducting corporate espionage in the US, attempting to steal the intellectual property of T-Mobile’s phone-testing robot according to court documents, it has not been similarly identified facilitating Chinese government spying.
Matthew Brazil, a former US Army intelligence officer and diplomat who was based in China for eight years, and is the co-author of a US Naval Institute book on Chinese Communist Espionage, told Sky News:
“The concerns about Huawei I think are well-founded because logically speaking it’s almost impossible for people who study the Chinese Communist Party to imagine that Huawei is totally independent.
“Huawei does a lot of business for the Chinese government, Huawei has a powerful Communist Party committee inside it, and if you look at materials in Chinese from Huawei they are a lot more patriotic than materials that are in English.
“And so it’s likely that Huawei is indeed doing work on behalf of the Chinese Communist intelligence services, however what we lack here is solid evidence that backs up that logical conclusion.
“It would be good if the US government and those who work with it could provide more solid evidence about Huawei’s activities,” Mr Brazil added.
Certainly it seems as if Western nations assess that Beijing harbours such intentions, and this then is the risk that Western nations are being forced to measure: Can they include Huawei’s equipment within critical national infrastructure and be confident that it would not be used against them?