The sacking of defence minister Gavin Williamson is another indication of how technology is influencing politics, and vice versa. While his crime was to leak details from a national security meeting, the fact the discussions were about Huawei technology is significant.
The fears over Huawei’s links to the Chinese government’s intelligence and security services are political, not technological. The networking supplier has been part of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure since 2005, when BT awarded a contract to supply equipment for its 21CN project – a major initiative to overhaul BT’s core transmission network and move from old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) technology to internet protocol on a digital infrastructure.
The decision to choose Huawei had political implications even then – BT dumped the ailing British supplier Marconi in favour of the Chinese firm, which effectively led to the demise of one of the oldest and most famous names in UK technology.
Acknowledging concerns over Huawei’s position, the UK government subsequently made unprecedented stipulations to maintain oversight of Huawei’s products. The company had to set up the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in 2010, which is now overseen by a board chaired by Ciaran Martin, the GCHQ lead for cyber security and chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
Huawei has to open up its products, specifications, source code and even allow assessment of the capabilities of its technical staff. No other tech supplier undergoes such intense scrutiny – a reflection of the significant role its products play in the UK’s critical national infrastructure.
Any problems uncovered by the HCSEC oversight board are publicly declared – as they were earlier this year, via a report to the UK National Security Advisor regarding concerns about technical deficiencies in Huawei’s software engineering processes which “exposed new risks in UK telecoms networks”.
The NCSC remains publicly comfortable with Huawei’s current position in UK telecoms. The concerns from the UK’s security partners in the Five Eyes network, especially the US, are political – a distrust of the Chinese government and disbelief that Huawei would not accede to demands from the state to use its equipment for spying or to disrupt UK infrastructure.
Of course, China is not the only country that makes such stipulations of its technology companies. The US has very similar laws, and the Snowden revelations showed that big US tech firms have been forced to place backdoors in their products. Imagine the furore if China banned, say, Cisco because of alleged closeness to the US security services.
Huawei is not the first and will not be the last example of the growing intersection between politics and technology. But on this sort of trajectory, there is only one inevitable outcome – that the tech sector splits between products and suppliers that the US approves of, and those which China and perhaps Russia approve of. Such a split would make things easier for politicians, but would polarise the tech industry in ways that surely nobody wants to see.