The Huawei dilemma: Should the UK be worried?

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, Mobility, Telcos, China, EU, United Kingdom

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • Of course we are you ninny.

    The moment we in the West sold our soul to save a few $$$ by trading with such a state, whilst invading other nations for lesser crimes.

    The wheels are now falling off the cart.

    Hope the savings were worth it. Not that we saved much in the end, we are debt slaves to China now.
    • The founder of IKEA was a Nazi

      I really don't think any of this is an issue. People are citing meetings that the CEO (or equivalent) visited, red army type things.
      Anyways, the founder of IKEA was a nazi, and after that, he quit, said he didnt know what he was thinking, and later started a home furnishings store, which is the best in the world.

      They source products from China too. I'm not sure what the hoopla is all about. Seems like a couple of Republican House and Senate representatives have been paid off.

      There's a unwritten rule in the US that if an inventor or engineer leaves a company, they're allowed to take their knowledge and know-how to another company, it's called "Making A Career Move". Many folks at the Huawei R&D facility in The Bay Area are from Juniper, Cisco, Netgear, and other companies.

      Products don't start or live in a vacuum, unfortunately when it's framed as a "National Security Issue" it should raise eyebrows. My guess is that Huawei's equipment is as good or better than ZTE or Huawei's. Likely, ZTE or Huawei are original OEMs for these companies.
      donald duck 313
      • That must be it.

        A couple of Republican House and Senate representatives must have been paid off.

        It is not like China to interfere in the lives and businesses of those living in China. Indeed, China is one of the most open and trustworthy governments on the planet.
        John Zern
  • Yes, it's a threat

    You're naive if you think the Chinese would not place trojan horses or other backdoors into equipment like this. If they are willing to blatantly hack into US satellites, US government & military sites, and private sector industries like they have done in the past, it's not a stretch to see how a hostile government like China could do this.
    • Talk about naive ...

      So you think that the Americans are not up to the same thing? That they have YOUR best interests at heart.

      Pull the other leg ... the only interests they care about are their own!!

      As for hostile ... remind me again which country invaded and bombed the crap out of sovereign nations recently?
      • I believe that would have been factions in Afghanistan

        As for hostile ... remind me again which country backed faction invaded and flew hijacked planes into buildings full of people in a sovereign nation recently.

        Is that what you are talking about?
        John Zern
  • Agree

    Even if back doors are only for commercial, and not military purposes.

    You just can't trust a totalitarian regime.

    Heck, you cannot even trust the US government. They spy on anything and anybody they feel like spying on.
  • Some Assembly Required

    "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?"

    Would this include products assembled in China like Apple, Microsoft, etc products?
    • software is the key

      As long as they don't outsource their software development to chinese companies, things are not that bad.
      • What about firmware?

        "[F]irmware is the combination of persistent memory and program code and data stored in it".

        Lots and lots of hardware have firmware. Who do you imagine wrote it all?
  • What?

    We now trust Russians more than Chinese! Kaspersky!
  • These businessmen and politicians don't care about national security.

    They can sell the whole country for money, if they can, and chinese know how to play political games, just look at these lobbyist who they hired.
  • Re: Given the concerns raised by a US congressional committee..

    Concerns that the UK had the sense to figure out a way to address. Yet the US, it seems, would rather ignore any actual evidence, and just keep on running its HUAC-style operation, just like in days of old. Why let facts get in the way of a good witch-hunt?

    (And Salem happened in the USA as well. Spot the pattern?)
  • free of state control?

    Really depends how the question is put. There is no company in the UK that is free of corporation tax, which is controlled and collected by the UK government.
  • Eternal Paranoia

    I've never fully understood the perpetuation of this kind of paranoia...Are we, in fact scared of territorial, or fiscal domination; or is it the same thing? What was Hitler after, for instance? Did he and his imaginary elite want to establish overarching managerial responsibility for every conquered nation? If so, they were clearly stupid. Additionally,the inevitable end result of all successful national economic competitiveness is, what? Your citizens all get to live in luxury while all foreigners starve? Again, clearly stupid. What am I missing. Can we not deconstruct the whole thing and spell it out clearly in order to create balanced dependency for every nation opn earth?
  • Everyone knows that the US is paranoid

    I find this idea quaint - yes foreign countries can be a thread, but in a different way. The Chinese have become a threat, not because of the size of their military which is there mainly to protect their borders and more significantly, control their large and diverse population and prevent groups from expressing themselves. No the threat comes from their industry and their ability to scale up to meet needs, free of all the western restrictions on development. As the Japanese demolished the car industry in the UK they are seeking to become the world's principle manufacturer of electronic products. Unlike motor vehicles logistic costs are quite low so it needs far less in the way of investment in local production outside of China. They are on the same strategy as the Japanese, who allowed their brand to be "low cost - poorly made" to becoming "moderate cost well made" and now "high cost superbly made". The Chinese have moved much more rapidly to the second stage and I can see a time soon when people will covet "made in China" as symbol of quality. That is where the threat lies - to our industry, jobs, skills and employment.
  • It comes down to preference

    Who do you want hacking your phone, data, personal emails etc. The Americans or the Chinese?
    Do you remember the hullabaloo when a hacker in China hacked into gmail accounts? It turned out he was exploiting backdoors that were introduced by Google at the request of the Americans so that they themselves could eavesdrop and hack into anyone's account.
    If the US doesn't like what you've been saying or writing, then remember the UK has an extradition treaty with the US but not with China.

    For the US, they have military power abroad to project, and economic power at home to protect. China is a direct competitor to both, so I'm not surprised the US has taken this view and are probably pressuring others to take the same view.
  • Selective outrage

    "Do you remember the hullabaloo when a hacker in China hacked into gmail accounts? It turned out he was exploiting backdoors that were introduced by Google at the request of the Americans so that they themselves could eavesdrop and hack into anyone's account."

    Good point. I'd rather that nobody spy on private citizens, but it's bizarre how so many people seem outraged that the Chinese are (or might) be doing it, but don't care that the US government have been doing it for decades.