The UK just approved Huawei 5G equipment. Here’s why

Equipment from China’s Huawei can be used in the UK’s 5G networks. The eventual decision was surprisingly transparent

We finally know where the UK stands on Huawei. The prime minister has decided that the Chinese technology firm, along with other companies deemed “high-risk,” are allowed to be part of the country’s 5G and telecoms networks. But their involvement is limited.

Huawei won’t be allowed to have its technology involved in key parts of the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure, ‘core’ parts of communications networks, or at sensitive military or nuclear sites. On top of this, the government is also putting a restriction on the amount of a network that Huawei can own: 35 per cent.

The decision was taken by Boris Johnson after a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, held with senior government figures, and analysis from the UK’s cybersecurity body.

It ends more than a year of posturing over whether Huawei’s equipment should be allowed within the UK’s telecoms networks. Ministers were first discussing a potential ban as far back as August 2018. Since then there’s been plenty of political grandstanding, making sweeping statements about the risks of Huawei. But now there’s some justification of the limited position Huawei is being given in 5G networks.

So is Huawei a threat?

The UK is allowing Huawei into its networks after an assessment by the country’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). The organisation, which is responsible for helping businesses be secure, has taken the relatively unusual step of publishing a detailed breakdown of how the decision was reached. This guidance applies to all companies considered as high risk – there’s no public list – but Huawei is given a special mention.

The worries around Huawei all come from its Chinese origin – particularly its potential connections to the country’s government. It’s been suggested that the ruling Communist Party could pressure Huawei into installing backdoors into its products that would allow it to spy on traffic that’s passing through its networks under laws introduced in 2017. There have also been questions surrounding Huawei’s president and founder Ren Zhengfei, who was an engineer in China’s army and joined the Communist Party in 1978. 

But for all the concerns around the firm, there’s been little technical evidence pointing to wrongdoing by Huawei. 

“Huawei has always been considered higher risk by the UK government and a risk mitigation strategy has been in place since they first began to supply into the UK,” the NCSC’s analysis says. It gives several reasons for this. These include that Huawei already has a significant market share in the UK, that it could be ordered by the Chinese government to act in a way that’s “harmful” to other countries and that China has a track record of launching cyberattacks against the UK.

“Our experience has shown that Huawei’s cybersecurity and engineering quality is low and its processes opaque,” the NCSC said. The company’s products are some of the most scrutinised in the world. In 2010 the Chinese company set up the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), in Banbury. HCSEC is essentially a secure lab where Huawei allows UK officials to scour its hardware looking for malicious code.

Since 2014, there have been annual reports published from the lab, which is often dubbed The Cell. The last two of these have been critical of Huawei, but not for eavesdropping on network traffic through its products. The concerns? They all revolve around having buggy code.

The 2019 report said Huawei was a “serious” security risk because it hadn’t done enough to improve its codebase since the 2018 inspection had been completed. Nothing the company has done in the lead up to the 5G decision – including agreeing to spend $2 billion (£1.53bn) to address security concerns – has changed this stance. 

What does Huawei say?

The Chinese company has consistently denied that it’s acting as an agent for the Chinese government. The company welcomed the UK’s decision, with vice president Victor Zhang saying it was “reassured” it could keep providing 5G tech to network operators. “We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation, as well as ensuring consumers have access to the best possible technology,” Zhang said in a statement. 

Previously, the company’s chairperson, Liang Hua, has categorically said the company doesn’t want to spy on people and won’t do so if the Chinese government requests it. “We are willing to sign a no-spy agreement with the UK government,” Liang has said. “No spying, no back doors.” Huawei’s founder has gone even further. Ren has said, in a rare media appearance with journalists, that he would “rather shut Huawei down” than do anything to damage the company’s customers.

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What does this mean for 5G in the UK?

The UK’s big four mobile network operators – comprising Vodafone, EE, O2, and Three – have all launched their 5G networks in the last six month. And all of them already use some Huawei equipment. 

However, the 5G networks are pretty patchy. Their coverage is limited to the UK’s major cities and towns and don’t serve large potions of the country. The four network operators have ambitious growth plans over the next few years and key to the expansion of 5G networks is Huawei’s equipment. Its 5G equipment, is fuelled by serious research and development spending, is thought to be ahead of competitors. The CEO of Vodafone, Nick Read, 
has said bans on Huawei would limit the speed of the 5G rollout.

Huawei’s Zhang said the company would keep “working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track”. The NCSC’s guidance lists 5G equipment that high risk companies, including Huawei, shouldn’t provide to the UK’s networks.

These include data management systems, network analytics, authentication systems and those that generally allow greater control of what happens inside a network. The new rules mean that no more than 35 per cent of an equipment on a network should below to Huawei, or any other high risk company. The NCSC also detailed parts of 4G networks and other communications networks that high risk companies shouldn’t be involved in.

As a result, network providers are encouraged to remove Huawei from their setups if they rely upon more than 35 per cent of its equipment. They’re told to “reduce to the recommended level as soon as practical” and it’s said this should be achievable in three years. And NCSC technical director Ian Levy wrote in a blog post that it is “crazy” that there are only three providers – Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei – for some parts of the 5G network. 

Why has the UK’s decision taken so long?

A lot has happened since the end of 2018. The UK has spent most of this time attempting to determine its Brexit position and how it should leave the EU. There’s also been a change of prime minister and a general election in the mix. Now a large part of that’s been decided – we leave the EU this Friday – it’s freed up government time to make a final decision.

There’s also been the complication of leaks. In May 2019, defence secretary Gavin Williamson was fired from his position after being accused of leaking information about Huawei. It was reported he disclosed information that may have been given to Cabinet ministers during NSC meetings. The NSC involves government ministers, who all have Official Secrets Act clearance, and are able to be briefed on matters by the UK’s intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6, and GCHQ).

How much of a role did politics play in the decision? 

The UK’s decision to allow Huawei in its 5G networks will be seen as a snub to the US. The country has been putting pressure on regulators in the UK to ban Huawei’s technology. Johnson, his predecessor Theresa May, and the current cabinet have all been lobbied by US politicians. The country is locked in a trade war stand off with China, a battle that could shape most of the next decade. Part of these trade issues saw Huawei banned by Google.

In December the US national security adviser Robert O’Brien ramped up pressure on lawmakers in the UK. “They are just going to steal wholesale state secrets, whether they are the UK’s nuclear secrets or secrets from MI6 or MI5,” O’Brien told the Financial Times. He warned that allowing Huawei into the UK’s networks was a national security issue, not a commercial decision.

O’Brien has not been the only political figure looking to exploit the UK and US’s close international relationship. Republican senators have also been writing to British politicians telling them to argue against Huawei: they said blocking the Chinese firm would allow more competition in the telecoms market.

Most of these political fears around Huawei have been presented without technical evidence that the country is using its equipment to conduct spying. A dossier presented to the UK security services by the US, was said not to contain any “smoking gun” implicating the company. 

There have also been threats that the UK would risk losing intelligence information from the US if it allowed Huawei into its networks. However, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, has said he has no reason to believe intelligence sharing would be jeopardised. “It is a two-way street,” Parker said. Whether these threats now result in any action from the US is still to be seen.

All Rights Reserved for matt burgess

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