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NCSC signals UK may take softer line on Huawei

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre suggests Huawei will be allowed to form core elements of the country’s 5G mobile network infrastructure after all

Huawei, the China-based networking equipment and services supplier under fire around the world for its alleged links to the Chinese intelligence services, may be allowed to form a core part of the UK’s future 5G mobile network infrastructure after all, according to the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC)

The NCSC now believes it is possible to mitigate some of the risks associated with using Huawei’s hardware in future 5G mobile networks, according to the Financial Times, which cited sources familiar with the conclusions of a government report due to be released in March 2019.

BT, which owns the EE network in the UK, had previously revealed it was stripping back its exposure to Huawei and would not allow the supplier’s equipment to sit in the core of its 5G network, while competitor Vodafone has “paused” its use of Huawei equipment while it waits for more clarity.

The NCSC’s findings directly contradict the US government’s line on Huawei – Washington has banned the supplier from federal government contracts and there has been consistent speculation that President Donald Trump may sign an executive order that would effectively ban Huawei from commercial contracts in the US as well.

The FT’s sources went on to speculate that their findings may carry significant weight in other European capitals thanks to the UK’s enhanced access to US intelligence through its membership of the so-called Five Eyes network, which also includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

“Other nations can make the argument that if the British are confident of mitigation against national security threats then they can also reassure their public and the US administration that they are acting in a prudent manner in continuing to allow their telecommunications service providers to use Chinese components as long as they take the kinds of precautions recommended by the British,” the unnamed source said. 

Maximum diversity

The leak came just days after MI6 chief Alex Younger told reporters at a Munich security conference that he did not plan to press for a ban on Huawei in the UK.

Younger revealed that the authorities had been weighing up a number of practical points over whether or not to allow Huawei into national network cores, among them a potential shortage of equipment providers and worries over any one company having a monopoly-like position.

“It’s not inherently desirable that we have a monopolistic supplier of critical national infrastructure. We should be aiming for the maximum diversity as a matter of good practice”
Alex Younger, MI6

“There are some practical points about the number of vendors that exist at the moment,” said Younger. “It’s not inherently desirable that we have a monopolistic supplier of any of our critical national infrastructure. We should be aiming for the maximum diversity as a matter of good practice.”

 “We need to take a principles-based approach to this and the first is around quality…. This has got nothing to do with the country of origin; we should be insisting on the highest level of quality in any form of technology platform or service we choose to use and in particular security quality.”

At the event, at which Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and US vice-president Mike Pence spoke out about their concerns over Huawei, Younger also said that none of the other Five Eyes states had personally pressured him over Huawei.

Risk to national security

The NCSC did not comment on the leak, although neither did it dispute its accuracy. However, it did reiterate the findings of the most recent Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Oversight Board report, which raised concerns that shortcomings in Huawei’s engineering processes could indeed pose a risk to the UK’s national security. The next edition of the annual report, due in the summer, is expected to be similarly critical.

Huawei had not responded to a request for comment for Computer Weekly at the time of writing. However, earlier in February 2019, Ryan Ding, president of the firm’s carrier business group, flatly denied that Huawei was helping the Chinese government conduct espionage in the UK.

Responding to a letter from Norman Lamb, chair of the cross-party Science and Technology Committee, Ding said: “Huawei has never and will never use UK-based hardware, software or information gathered in the UK, or anywhere else globally, to assist other countries in gathering intelligence. We would not do this in any country.

“Huawei is a closely watched company. We have 180,000 employees and tens of thousands of partners, and we are subject to extensive regulatory oversight in numerous countries around the globe. Were Huawei ever to engage in malicious behaviour, it would not go unnoticed and it would certainly destroy our business.

“For us, it is a matter of security or nothing; there is no third option. We choose to ensure security.”

Double standards

Earlier in February, Huawei rotating chairman Eric Xu accused the US of double standards, suggesting Washington’s campaign against it was motivated in part by the fear that if Huawei’s equipment were to be used in other countries, American intelligence services would find it harder to access personal information and intercept the mobile communications of its targets.

Five years ago, John Chambers, then CEO of Cisco, was forced to call on President Barack Obama to rein in the US National Security Agency (NSA) following the publication of investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place To Hide, which alleged that the US government routinely intercepted Cisco hardware heading to countries like China to insert backdoors into it that could be used for spying.

Documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden also accused the NSA of creating its own backdoors in Huawei’s networks.

Ericsson boss: don’t count us out

Separately, the chief executive of Sweden’s Ericsson, Börje Ekholm, has dismissed reports that European countries could fall behind on 5G – reports prompted at least in part by speculation that European governments might lock out Huawei, forcing reliance on local firms that do not have as advanced a research and development operation as their Chinese competitor.

Ekholm said there was a risk that Europe might miss out, but it was not because the region lacked access to appropriate standards of technology, but rather that an abundance of regulation, slow progress on spectrum auctions and restrictive spectrum fees was hindering 5G development.

“As we talk with our customers, it is clear they are impacted by this uncertainty. They have made large investments and will continue to make large investments to have strong-performing networks. They have a lot at stake, and we understand that continued uncertainty will impact their ability to move forward,” said Ekholm.

In spite of this, Ekholm moved to reassure doubters, saying that over many years the business had built up vast experience and industry-leading capabilities in supporting network transformations – such as those required to launch 5G.

“We have the resources and the supply chain capacity to meet a fast ramp-up of market demand as 5G is introduced globally. Our strategy is to work with the first movers in lead markets, driving 5G introduction as spectrum becomes available,” he said.

“We have a strong and flexible 5G portfolio in place and we will make sure that our customers stay ahead of the game.”

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