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Unplugging Huawei will be harder than it looks

James Ball

There is nothing some Conservatives like talking about more than Huawei. Each new development in global politics is a new chance to talk about the Chinese telecoms giant and the rollout of 5G. China and the US having a trade row? Huawei. Coronavirus originating in China? Huawei. The day of the week rhymes with Huawei? Perfect.

Reports of a new review by the UK’s National Cyber-Security Centre (NCSC) on Huawei and security have, then, found a welcome audience among Conservatives looking for an excuse to pull the plug. But even the new NCSC review shows things are more complicated than they first appear: the agency is warning that US sanctions on Huawei might force the UK to use insecure third-party replacement spare parts, making it a security risk. It is just the latest development in an argument that has always been as much about trade wars and geopolitics as cybersecurity

The UK wants to be a world leader in rolling out 5G, which will initially give people mobile internet speeds ten to twenty times faster than 4G, but which will quickly open up entirely new ways of using mobile connectivity – crucially, 5G connections have fair less delay than 4G, which makes them far more suitable for use by automated vehicles.

This, coupled with their greater data capacity and ability to handle larger numbers of devices compared with other wireless networks, also opens them up for use in domestic and industrial ‘internet of things’ devices.

Research by Barclays suggests a fast rollout of 5G could benefit the UK economy by up to £15 billion a year by 2025. Such figures on new technologies are often over-hyped in the short-run but under-hyped in the longer term. Yet few dispute that the UK will sorely need an economic boost in the aftermath of coronavirus.

Usually, this would be music to the ears of Conservative MPs: infrastructure investment, largely from the private sector boosted by the auction of radio wave rights to boost the public’s coffers for economic growth spread across the UK’s nations and regions.

The trouble comes because only three companies can provide the technology necessary to roll out 5G technology: Siemens, headquartered in Germany, Ericsson, headquartered in Sweden, and Huawei, headquartered in Shenzhen, China.

Telecoms infrastructure is critical infrastructure – and in a distant future where 5G networks control the country’s roads via automated cars, that infrastructure could be a matter of life and death. That creates a duty to secure those networks and to manage them against deliberate sabotage or vulnerabilities left through incompetence.

Governments generally don’t want to rely on a small number of vendors for critical infrastructure, both for security reasons and to help keep prices competitive – being restricted to just three is trouble enough.

If all of this sounds like a fairly boring matter of technology and security policy, more suited to expert analysis than Commons debates, that’s because… it is. MPs do not usually bother themselves with the minutiae of network security, and almost none have any background in it or have ever demonstrated much understanding of it.

That makes the decision of dozens of senior Conservative backbenchers to politicise the issue somewhat bizarre – until you notice the backdrop of the US-China trade dispute. There is currently no US technology company able to sell 5G infrastructure. The two vendors other than Huawei are both European.

Despite this, the US is doing everything in its power to dissuade other countries from purchasing Chinese kit for their networks. This is bemusing to experts in the field for multiple reasons – not least of which is that the US itself happily exported its own kit around the world for decades.

If buying or selling communications infrastructure to potential adversary nations is such folly, why was Cisco equipment used by China as the hardware to power its Great Firewall, restricting the free expression of its citizens?

What’s more, if using Huawei so foolish, why did the US sit back and allow the company to provide infrastructure for wired internet and 4G in numerous countries: including the UK, and – you guessed it – the US?

A cynic might suggest the US is banging the drum on security to further its agenda in other issues, such as its trade dispute with China. A pause on Huawei infrastructure would also allow US manufacturers to catch up, and perhaps even stop other countries gaining an advantage by rolling out 5G faster than the US.

It would be folly to ignore the risk of China using Huawei equipment to spy – just as it would be folly to ignore the risk of it compromising equipment or personnel at other companies. China, like Russia, the US and the UK, is a top-tier digital spying power. Huawei might provide a route for China into 5G networks. So might any other provider – there’s no escaping the online shadow war.

The government had hit on a compromise of keeping Huawei out of the ‘core’ of 5G networks most essential to security, while allowing it to have up to a 35 per cent share of non-core hardware.

It is facing pressure from its non-specialist MPs to go further and pledge to ban Huawei from the UK’s network infrastructure. It’s not entirely clear whether they understand this would require the UK’s operators to literally rip out much of the existing infrastructure we currently have. Huawei hardware accounts for around 45 per cent of our fibre networks and 35 per cent of existing 4G. Even hitting the 35 per cent non-core 5G cap is expected to cost BT £500 million alone in replacing equipment.

But why should boring reality stop the vaunted minds of Conservative MPs whose understandable wariness of China has convinced them to ignore telecoms giants, independent experts, and the UK’s own security services, who were happy to support the government compromise?

The fact of coronavirus emerging from China was seized on by some as a reason to reconsider Huawei – with No. 10 ‘sources’ saying it could provoke a government rethink. Why stop there?

The internet is full of conspiracies saying 5G itself is responsible for coronavirus. This is an unevidenced conspiracy theory, and Ofcom data shows phone mast radiation has never exceeded 0.4 per cent of the legal maximum or 0.005 per cent of safe limits. But hey, what does science know? Rip out those cables now.