Will the United Kingdom be the only Five-Eyes nation to allow Chinese telecom giant Huawei to have a role in the development of its advanced 5G wireless network? Australia and New Zealand have already decided to bar the company’s equipment from their future networks. Canada and the United States are expected to announce formal bans shortly.
In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously warned President George H.W. Bush that he ought not “go wobbly” on the issue of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The current resident of 10 Downing Street could use the same advice.
May overrules her National Security Council
In late April, a leaker revealed that Britain’s Tory Prime Minister Theresa May had overruled the objections of many of her senior cabinet officials who comprise her National Security Council, and decided to allow Huawei to contribute “noncore” equipment to the network. This decision came despite a warning from the National Cyber Security Centre in Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters that Huawei had made “no material progress” in addressing what western intelligence officials believe to be dangerous ties to the Chinese government.
The GCHQ is Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.
May, still clinging to power despite repeated failures to secure parliamentary approval for her Brexit plan to separate from the European Union, took action, and sacked her defense secretary, Gavin Williamson. An internal investigation found that Williamson was responsible for the leak, an accusation he vehemently denies.
May’s government has not officially confirmed the decision, but Williamson’s abrupt dismissal is a pretty good indicator that the information is accurate. Unlike the U.S., the U.K.—indeed, all of Europe—uses Huawei equipment extensively in its wireless networks. The Chinese manufacturer sells equipment cheap, an overriding factor in purchasing decisions.
But there’s a lot to worry about.
A serious risk to national security
All evidence points to the fact that Huawei is completely in bed with the Chinese government, if not a full-fledged part of the Chinese intelligence establishment.
A year ago, the Department of Defense banned the sale of cellphones made by Huawei and its fellow Chinese telecom giant ZTE, in DOD exchanges worldwide. This move followed the public admission by the nation’s intelligence chiefs that they would not use a Chinese-made cellphone due to security concerns. And the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 specifically banned Federal agencies—and contractors—from buying or using any telecommunications equipment made by Huawei and ZTE.
Huawei filed a lawsuit against the government in March over the ban.
In August, Australia revealed that Huawei had provided passwords to the Chinese government that allowed intelligence services to access “a foreign network” sometime in the last two years. It’s not a big jump from there to believing that Huawei would build a backdoor into its switching equipment that would give Chinese spies access to all the data and voice traffic passing through them.
We already know the Chinese have attempted similar hardware hacks in the past. Last October, Bloomberg’s Businessweek reported that the Chinese government had implanted a tiny chip on the motherboards of video processing servers made by Elemental Technologies, a company now owned by Amazon. While Amazon continues to insist the story is false, Bloomberg has stuck by its reporting, and intelligence agencies have remained silent.
Those motherboards would have provided Chinese intelligence with access to video files; a similar chip inserted in telecommunications equipment would provide far more, and potentially more damaging, information. China represents the greatest strategic threat to the United States and our allies. The U.S. government is right to insist on excluding Huawei from selling to the government, and it is right to insist it not be allowed to provide equipment to U.S. 5G networks.
Britain ought to do the same.