The Huawei dilemma: Should the UK be worried?

Summary:British telcos, both fixed and mobile, use large amounts of Huawei gear. Given the concerns raised by a US congressional committee, are we in danger?

...has for many years been very keen to engage the UK press — I am one of many journalists that Huawei has flown over to China to see its headquarters and selected facilities . It also has some very high-level spokespeople and advisors in the UK.

John Suffolk
John Suffolk. Image: Cabinet Office

Huawei's security chief, John Suffolk, used to be the UK CIO . The company's UK advisory board is headed up by former UK Trade & Investment chief Andrew Cahn. Tory peer Patience Wheatcroft is on the board, as until recently was Lib Dem peer Clement-Jones.

Clement-Jones's departure from the board was linked to the US congressional inquiry, but only in that the law firm for which he works, DLA Piper, was advising ZTE during the inquiry, and this created a conflict of interest.

The peer pointed to the Banbury-based Cyber Security Evaluation Centre that Huawei established with the UK intelligence services as an example of the company's willingness to let its equipment be vetted.

The congressional report also referred to the centre, particularly as a point of comparison with the vetting offers that Huawei and ZTE have made in the US — there, they have offered third-party vetting; in the UK, the government's own intelligence services are involved. The committee suggested that the third-party approach may result in a false sense of security.

As for the UK testing centre, the congressmen did not suggest it was failing in its duties. Rather strangely, it suggested only that "it is not clear yet... that such steps would readily transfer to the US market or successfully overcome the natural incentives of the situation and lead to truly independent investigations".

"BT's relationship with Huawei is managed strictly in accordance with UK laws and security best practice" — BT

Major customers such as BT are adamant that there is nothing to worry about. The ISP told me that none of the Huawei components it uses in its core network are "intelligent or processing".

"BT's relationship with Huawei is managed strictly in accordance with UK laws and security best practice," the company said. "BT's network is underpinned by robust security controls and built-in resilience. We continue to work closely with all our suppliers and the government, where appropriate, to ensure that the security of the network is not compromised."

Drawing conclusions

Let's be frank: the fundamental problem here is that Huawei and ZTE are Chinese companies. Any firm that wants to grow and succeed in China needs to have some level of state approval, and it certainly needs to have connections to the Communist Party.

Given that China's political and economic system is somewhat less than transparent, it is therefore deeply unsurprising that Huawei and ZTE's testimony to the congressional committee fell short of the questioners' hopes. How much did those representatives know? How much were they allowed to say? These are not questions we can answer.

Huawei plant
Huawei's manufacturing centre at Songshan Lake, near Shenzen. Image: Karen Friar

To some extent, ZTE has been right to retort that, if it and Huawei are to be blackballed in the US, the same should go for every Chinese IT and telecoms equipment manufacturer. How does it make sense to ban Chinese firms from building critical national infrastructure, but be fine with them putting laptops and mobile devices in the hands of most consumers and businesses?

That's not to say such a wide ban should come into play, but it is a logical extension of the thinking behind the report. Apart from testing the kit thoroughly, as it is doing, it is hard to see what the UK could do but simply ban all Chinese IT and telecoms equipment.

That way lies trade wars and market distortion. It would be expensive and a massive risk — and all on the basis of suspicions that may or may not be well-founded.

Unless the Chinese system becomes more transparent, which is unlikely to happen soon, we remain caught between that risk and the risk of using equipment that comes from an untrusted source.

Neither solution to this problem is particularly attractive.

Topics: Security, Broadband, China, EU, Mobility, Telcos, United Kingdom

About

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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