Despite having been a core supplier of network equipment to Britain for many years, the perceived threat of Huawei - and its links to the Chinese government - have been amplified within the context of increased hostility between the US and China, as well as Brexit.
Whilst President Donald Trump recently softened his stance towards Huawei, with suggestions that a ban on US companies selling to the China-based company could be lifted within the next two weeks, there have also been warnings that the UK-US information sharing relationship could be harmed if the UK allows Huawei to build Britain’s 5G network.
Not only this, but with Britain set to leave the EU towards the end of this year (apparently), there is increased impetus for the UK to fall into line with the US’s ways of doing business with China, if it is looking to secure a trade deal with the White House.
Simply put, Britain’s decision to use Huawei technology - and to what extent it plans to use its network equipment - is not simply based upon a theoretical or practical security risk, but is also based upon geopolitical decisions that could impact future global trading positions.
This is broadly the conclusion that MPs on the Science and Technology Committee came to this week, writing a letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright, stating that:
...subject to: restrictions on access to highly sensitive elements of the relevant networks; continued close scrutiny; and satisfactory improvements in Huawei’s cyber security in response to the Huawei Cyber Security Centre’s Oversight Board - there are no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK’s 5G or other telecommunications networks.
This conclusion is restricted to technical considerations. There may well be geopolitical or ethical grounds for the Government to decide to enact a ban on Huawei’s equipment.
The Committee states that consideration must be given to the UK’s ongoing co-operation with its major allies.
Following the Committee’s assessment, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) launched an inquiry into the Government’s approach to sustaining access to ‘safe’ telecoms technology as a national security issue. The inquiry will focus on 5G and the wider telecoms sector as an important test case.
The Committee also heard that most network operators in the UK exclude Huawei from the ‘core’ of their future 5G networks. However, this is currently a voluntary decision on the part of the independent network providers. The Committee has urged that the government should mandate the exclusion of Huawei from the core - limiting its involvement to ‘non-core’ deployments.
It also argued that the government should monitor Huawei’s response to the issues raised by the Huawei Cyber Security Centre’s Oversight Board and be prepared to act to restrict the use of Huawei equipment if progress is unsatisfactory. The Committee added that the government should also consult Ofcom on strengthening its powers in order to help improve cyber security in telecommunications networks, and support any changes that are deemed necessary.
Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:
Following my Committee’s recent evidence session, we have concluded that there are no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK’s 5G or other telecommunications networks.
The benefits of 5G are clear and the removal of Huawei from the current or future networks could cause significant delays.
However, as outlined in the letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we feel there may well be geopolitical or ethical considerations that the Government need to take into account when deciding whether they should use Huawei’s equipment.
The Government also needs to consider whether the use of Huawei’s technology would jeopardise this country’s ongoing co-operation with our major allies.
Moreover, Huawei has been accused of supplying equipment in Western China that could be enabling serious human rights abuses. The evidence we heard during our evidence session did little to assure us that this is not the case.
I hope the evidence we have gathered helps the Government as it completes its Telecoms Supply Chain Review, which must be published by the end of August 2019.