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Huawei: Shaken and stirred

I don't know about you, but whenever I watch a James Bond movie, one thought invariably crosses my mind: who pays for all this stuff?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

By "this," of course, I'm referring to all of the evil villains' accoutrements: secret volcano lairs, underwater hideaways, orbital rockets, crack teams of nuclear-thieving bandits. And that's before you even factor in the payroll, superannuation, and death benefits for all of those minions; heck, can you imagine the worker's compensation premiums?

These secret lairs don't come cheap, Mr Bond; that's why it's best if someone else is paying the bills.(Credit: MGM)

These and other such existentially tinged questions are never really explored in the movies, but the quiet assumption is that there's some evil government — the Russians, usually — or SPECTRE, or a filthy-rich financier keeping the bank accounts full. These people work in the shadows, exerting their influence and paying untold sums of money to foster some even greater, more evil cause.

Come to think of it, this sounds a fair bit like the scenario that's been created around telecommunications vendor Huawei by the governments of Australia, the United States, Canada, and the UK. Taiwan is again exploring its relationship with China, and more are joining the ranks every day as the very whisper of conspiracy — that the Chinese government might be spying on the world through telecommunications infrastructure supplied by people who were once part of the People's Liberation Army — grows into a rush, and then into a cyclone.

Once held up as a case of the Gillard government overreacting, the allegations took on a more serious tone recently, after the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence said that Huawei and fellow Chinese company ZTE "cannot be trusted" to supply critical infrastructure systems.

That's not exactly the kind of reference you want on your CV — and with other governments apparently reconsidering their relationship with Huawei, it was hardly surprising that John Lord would front the National Press Club and scream bloody murder over the ban.

Lord's allegations — that Huawei has been unfairly singled out, and that the government should apply the same scrutiny to all vendors of critical infrastructure — might sound more convincing if they came from someone who doesn't have a direct interest in Huawei's success in Australia (Lord, a former Royal Australian Navy admiral, is Huawei's local chairman).

Lord's allegations might sound more convincing if they came from someone who doesn't have a direct interest in Huawei's success in Australia.

He does have a point: security is paramount on our nationwide networks, and there is a need to make sure that any infrastructure investment is not beholden to vested interests within or outside of Australia. Lord's suggestions of an independent cybersecurity centre to vet new telecoms equipment are not entirely ridiculous.

And yet, our defence intelligence organisations are already on top of that. The Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) was long ago established as a national authority on telecommunications and IT infrastructure security, vetting as it does all IT equipment to be used by government departments maintaining sensitive data environments.

The DSD collaborates with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Australia — all recognised peak bodies in their respective fields — to maintain the central Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) that has established itself as a first-line defence for cybersecurity response.

In other words, we already have the kind of body that Lord is calling for. And it's evaluating security equipment. And for whatever reasons — they are so far above my security level that even Malcolm Turnbull apparently had them erased from his memory, Men In Black-style, after being briefed on them — they have evaluated the security climate around Huawei, and found things that they don't like.

Objectively, I would suggest that the Gillard government would hardly take such an unusual step without firm evidence. I doubt that it would want to risk harming our trade relationship with China — the world's second-largest economy, and our largest trading partner — over some contrived security scare. You don't just waltz into Beijing and start throwing your weight around, unless, of course, you're packing a Walther PPK and have Michelle Yeoh watching your back.

It doesn't help, of course, that Huawei is a tightly and privately held company with little or no transparency into its operations.

And, come to think of it, I doubt that ASIO would waste three years investigating the vendor and conclude that there is sufficient evidence to justify a ban on the company without something more than a whiff of suspicion. Nor would the US government risk a trade war with China, unless it had something solid to go on.

It doesn't help, of course, that Huawei is a tightly and privately held company with little or no transparency into its operations. Its competitors — companies like Cisco Systems, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, and the like — are all massive, publicly owned vendors with all of the attendant reporting requirements, so we know what they're about and who's pulling the strings.

If Huawei were to open its books, float its executives and engage with the West on the public stage in the same way — maybe then there would be less suspicion about its intentions. But, as Lord showed, Huawei wants to have its cake and eat it, too; it wants to maintain its current structure of secrecy, but be admitted into the deepest chambers of the governments it wants to sell to.

Simply complaining that a company has been singled out won't get you far; the whole point of security assessments, after all, is to single out specific companies when there is evident to warrant doing so.

Will this whole affair increase the cost of the National Broadband Network (NBN)? One would hope not, although there may always be a temptation for the remaining telecommunications giants to up their prices, knowing that cut-price and technologically savvy Huawei is out of the game. Sadly, with no legal recourse available to Huawei, and the weight of numbers suggesting that ASIO has made a prudent move, there seems to be little that anybody can do to change the situation.

Perhaps it's time to call in James Bond.

What do you think? Is Huawei being victimised? Should a new, apolitical body be created to evaluate telecommunications products for national infrastructure use? Or is the ban justified?

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