UK naïve to think China won’t try to exploit Huawei

A think-tank report has branded the UK government naïve at best, irresponsible at worst, over its use of Chinese networking equipment in critical national infrastructure

There is no reason to think the UK is not a target of the Chinese intelligence services, and it is naïve at best and irresponsible at worst to make the assumption that Beijing will not try to leverage Huawei’s participation in critical national infrastructure (CNI) projects – such as 5G mobile network roll-out – in some way, according to a new report from the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a defence and security think tank.

The report was compiled by Charles Parton, a 37-year veteran of the diplomatic service, who spent over 20 years assigned to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and now has interests in a number of consultancies and non-governmental organisations that specialise in Chinese affairs.

It directly contradicts the line expected to be taken by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is currently helping to compile a government report on the activities of Huawei in the UK, and is expected to say the risk to the UK’s national security from permitting Huawei’s involvement in critical national networks is either minimal, or easily mitigated.

“The [Chinese Communist] Party is not malignant or hostile in its foreign relations, but neither is it communautaire; it is ruthlessly self-centred,” wrote Parton. “No country should put into the hands of another the ability to interfere with or bring to a standstill its CNI.”

In the report, Parton said the UK’s role as a major geopolitical player, its effective military capabilities, its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, its enhanced access to US intelligence through the Five Eyes surveillance alliance, and its world-class technology industry made it a highly attractive target for the Chinese government.

Four reasons to ban Huawei

Parton outlined four key reasons as to why the UK government should ban Huawei. First, that the history of China’s cyber attacks already showed that a key part of Beijing’s interference in other countries was obtaining access to sensitive industrial, commercial, technological, defence, personal and political data, therefore it was wise to limit the potential exposure of such data through communications networks.

Second, he argued, it is much easier to place hidden backdoors in networking equipment than to find them. He pointed out that a 2013 report on Huawei had said GCHQ could not possibly be confident it could find insertions in millions of lines of frequently updated code.

“China and others wish to promote the idea that each country has the right to control the internet within its own borders. Liberal democracies hold that the internet should be an open global good. The UK government needs to continue to give support to this principle”
Charles Parton, Rusi

Third, in direct contradiction of Huawei’s own statements on the matter, Parton said Huawei staff would in reality have no choice but to accede to demands from the Chinese government, noting that the party has been actively strengthening its presence inside private companies.

Finally, he argued that by going against its Five Eyes allies, which have already moved to restrict or ban Huawei, the UK could result in key allies being less inclined to cooperate with it on other threats to global security, or worse still, exclude the UK from any future intelligence sharing.

Parton also noted the Chinese government’s strategy of allying big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and surveillance technology such as facial recognition as a tool of internal social and political control – Huawei is known to be openly involved in the development of such technology.

He argued that a cornerstone of this strategy was the use of user- and surveillance-friendly applications used on smartphones, notably WeChat, a combined communication, social media and payment service without which it is becoming difficult to function in Chinese society. These platforms are vulnerable to government censorship and control, and are spreading worldwide with implications for user privacy and data flow as well as national security.

“Internet governance or sovereignty is a major area of difference between liberal democracies and authoritarian states. China and others wish to promote the idea that each country has the right to control the internet within its own borders,” said Parton.

“Liberal democracies hold that the internet should be an open global good. The UK government needs to continue to give support to this principle.”

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