End-to-end encryption means Huawei bans are about availability, not interception

Former Prime Minister who brought in Australia's anti-encyption laws says the technology can prevent potential tapping by telco equipment manufacturers.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: APH

If irony didn't die in the last week, it is more than likely sitting in a British hospital with its feet up, as it recovers from a severe coronary event. But before we get into the medical issues of literary techniques, a little history lesson.

In 2012, long before it was cool in Washington to ban Huawei, Australia banned the Chinese telco equipment manufacturer from its National Broadband Network build. It was therefore no surprise to see the ban extended to 5G equipment six years later.

Last October, director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate cum Australia's spy chief Mike Burgess said the reason behind the ban was the shrinking distinction between edge and core networks in 5G compared to previous generations.

"That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network," Burgess said at the time.

"At the end of this process, my advice was to exclude high-risk vendors [namely Huawei and ZTE] from the entirety of evolving 5G networks."

Across the same time period, as Australia gained its global reputation for knifing prime ministers at a moment's notice, Malcolm Turnbull had a go in the top job for three years, before he too was forced into retirement by his party room.

In that time, former Prime Minister Turnbull oversaw the introduction of the nation's anti-encryption laws, which really set the precedent for the Five Eyes nations of Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom, and Canada to make political moves against encryption; handed down the aforementioned Huawei 5G ban; and famously told ZDNet that regardless of what the laws of mathematics state, the only laws that apply for legislating decryption as the law of Australia.

"The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that," Turnbull told ZDNet in July 2017.

"The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

See also: The winner in the war on Huawei is Samsung

Fast forward to Tuesday morning, with the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling the BBC that, as his country decides whether to allow Huawei for 5G builds, critics would need to come up with an alternative.

By the afternoon, Turnbull popped up on BBC Radio 4 to state the obvious: The alternatives are actually very close to the UK, in Europe, and have the names of Ericsson and Nokia. Turnbull also added Samsung to the mix.

The former Australian Prime Minister also addressed the ban on Huawei he introduced, and echoed thoughts he expressed in March last year, that a threat is the combination of capability and intent, and while capability takes years to create, intent can change instantly.

"It's not a question of saying, Huawei is doing bad things at the moment? The real question is, not looking for a smoking gun, but asking whether this is a loaded gun, and whether you want to have that risk," Turnbull told the BBC.

Turnbull added it was a question of whether a nation wanted to give China the ability to interfere with "one of the most fundamental technological platform forms of your modern economy" in the form of 5G and the Internet of Things.

At this point of proceedings, irony was frolicking around a London common, doing what it does and spreading good cheer. But the former Australian PM stayed between the lines.

The ambulance would soon be called however, when Turnbull revealed some reasoning behind the ban, and how it wasn't because of fears Huawei could tap into networks.

"The issue is actually not so much a question of interception," he said. "Because increasingly end-to-end encryption means that data that can be intercepted can't be read."

Defibrillators were at this point being called for a fallen literary device. No surprise really, the human brain is barely able to handle the concept that the person responsible for sending Australia down the path of being a global encryption pariah is now saying that very same technology the Five Eyes want to get into -- the technology Turnbull's Home Affairs minister said is used by pedophiles, and hence, a bad technology -- is able to protect those nations from Beijing's prying eyes, and would hence be a good technology.  

After this, Turnbull returned to making more sense.

"The real issue is network availability. If you have another party who may not always have your best interests at heart, choosing to shut down or remove access to a part of your economy, a part of your network -- that's a very fundamental risk," Turnbull continued.

"We made this decision quite independently of the Americans."

As written in September, following the same geopolitical reasoning that China would glare at American equipment inside of its networks, prudence dictates that the Five Eyes nations are better off trusting equipment from Stockholm, Seoul, or Helsinki.

On the same day the former Australian Prime Minister was talking to the BBC, a group of bipartisan senators in the United States introduced legislation that would set aside $1 billion to create "Western-based alternatives" to Huawei and ZTE.

Presumably the word Western means a US-based alternative, with Canada unlikely to reheat the corpse of Nortel and the UK, New Zealand, or Australia far from being in a position to create a new telco ecosystem.

This language also appears to willingly ignore the likes of Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and NEC -- but probably means the likes of Cisco and VMware are in line for some government funds.

"Moving towards an open, virtualized RAN infrastructure will speed up 5G network integration and rollout, while decreasing deployment costs," VMware senior vice president and general manager of Telco Edge Cloud Products Allwyn Sequeira said.

"We thank Senator Warner for his approach, which will foster US-led innovation in the mobile technology space and give carriers more secure options to buildout our next-generation wireless infrastructure."

Barely three weeks into 2020, and former leaders of Australia are now touting the benefits of encryption, and a group of American legislators want to create some sort of government-backed Freedom Wireless equipment vendor.

2020 is already delivering on the technical and political whiplash front.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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