Theresa May says she is yet to make a decision on whether the UK will allow Huawei to supply technology for the country’s 5G mobile phone network.
The decision follows the release of leaked documents that claimed that the UK would allow the Chinese telecoms firm to provide ‘non-core’ parts of the infrastructure, despite warnings from the NSC (National Security Council) that Huawei may use the network to spy on citizens.
Former defence secretary and NSC member Gavin Williamson was accused of the leak and sacked. He denies leaking the documents but has been vocal in his concern over the use of Huawei’s services.
Huawei has signed 40 commercial 5G contracts with carriers across the globe, but Japan and the US have refused its products and services for government use, and Australia has banned Huawei products altogether. Several other countries are considering bans or restrictions, and BT and Verizon are among the high-profile businesses that have refused to work with the telecoms provider.
What’s the risk?
5G is the latest generation of mobile broadband, promising to deliver download and browsing speeds up to 20 times those of current 4G networks. But to do that, governments need to upgrade the physical infrastructure that provides connections.
Emily Taylor of the Royal Institute of International Affairs says:
Traditional networks have been like pipes and wires. Data’s just flowed through them, and all the clever bits happen at the level of devices or your PC or whatever is connected to [the Internet].
5G is a real game-changer, because the network itself is going to be a lot more intelligent. There’s going to be much more software running things, changing its shape, changing its function all the time.
“It’s going to be a much more unpredictable surface, and for cyber security experts that means that it presents a more of a potential risk than equipment, like antennae or masts.”
The concern is that whoever is responsible for implementing and maintaining the network will have access to vast amounts of information. The organisation that builds the infrastructure theoretically has the power to conduct espionage, disrupt communications or hack smart technology.
Potential exposure of smart tech is particularly concerning, as 5G technology could pave the way for inventive new uses of the technology, such as self-driving cars and more advanced smart-enabled houses.
This threat will be present no matter who implements the technology, but Huawei has been viewed suspiciously by many because of alleged ties with the Chinese government.
However, Zhao Houlin, the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, says there is no evidence that the Chinese government could exploit Huawei to gather information, and suggests the US created the suspicion to benefit its own political aims.
UK reaches a middle ground
The UK has said that Huawei can supply some “non-core” technology to UK phone companies, presumably in an attempt to satisfy both China, which wants to protect trade deals, and the US, which has said it will refuse to share threat intelligence with any government that works with Huawei.
Williamson wasn’t alone in his concern over Huawei. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Home Secretary Sajid Javid and new Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt all urged the UK to ban Huawei. However, the UK’s intelligence agencies have said the risk can be contained.
Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, argued in February:
We have to understand the opportunities and threats from China’s technological offer – understand the global nature of supply chains and service provision, irrespective of the flag of the supplier.
Take a clear view on the implications of China’s technological acquisition strategy in the West, and help our governments decide which parts of this expansion can be embraced, which need risk management, and which will always need a sovereign, or allied, solution.
How we deal with it will be crucial for prosperity and security way beyond 5G contracts.”
The one thing that all politicians agree on is that, by not working with Huawei, the UK will be forced to delay the rollout of 5G. The UK telecoms provider Three estimates that, without the involvement of Huawei, the technology will arrive 18 months late.
Whether you think the ban necessary or not, you can’t fault the UK government for sticking to its principles and prioritising security over the economic and quality-of-life benefits that 5G will provide.