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UK government at odds over Huawei threat

The chair of the Science and Technology Committee has criticised the government’s vague response to concerns about Huawei’s activities in the UK

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) appear to be at odds over the potential threat to the UK’s network infrastructure posed by the continued use of Huawei equipment, and are struggling to reach a consensus ahead of the publication of the Telecoms Supply Chain Review in the next couple of months.

This is according to Norman Lamb, member of parliament and chair of the cross-bench Science and Technology Committee, who wrote to a number of government departments earlier in 2019 seeking assurances regarding the security of the UK’s critical national network infrastructure.

Lamb has now made public a letter received at the beginning of March from culture secretary Jeremy Wright, in which he set out DCMS’ position.

In the letter, which can be read in full online, Wright said it was important that the government had confidence in the security and resilience of the UK’s critical infrastructure, but pointed out that procurement decisions were driven by private telecoms companies DCMS cannot direct.

Wright said the FCO was working to “understand the views and positions of international partners” when it came to setting the UK’s future position on Huawei – a reference to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who has made a number of comments suggesting the UK’s use of Huawei equipment may jeopardise aspects of Westminster’s relationship with Washington.

Findings to be carefully considered

He went on to outline the work conducted through the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) and the associated Oversight Board, and said the findings of the Oversight Board would be carefully considered in the review.

“We have serious concerns surrounding the ability of both state and non-state actors to chain access to our telecoms’ critical national infrastructure,” wrote Wright. “We are closely examining Huawei’s role and that of other suppliers in our 5G networks, and will also take account of the approaches taken by our international partners.

“The recent attribution of state-sponsored malicious cyber activity to the Chinese Ministry of State Security reiterates the importance of our continued vigilance in this area.”

Lamb responded: “The response we have received from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has shed very little light on the extent of the potential threat to national security arising from foreign involvement in the UK’s communications infrastructure, or on how the government monitors and manages this risk.

“One thing is clear: there are obvious tensions between the various departments involved, reinforcing the view that the government is struggling to reach a consensus on this issue.

“We hope the government review, due out later this year, will give cohesive assurances on the steps being taken to manage this risk and to establish the scale of our dependence on Huawei, and we urge the government to publish the findings of this review as soon as possible,” Lamb continued.

“As I have previously stated, my committee’s actions will be driven by evidence and thorough analysis, but it remains vital for our national interest that these issues are considered carefully, fully and swiftly.”

Carrier business group president

At the same time, he pressed Huawei’s carrier business group president Ryan Ding over the firm’s actions in the UK – Ding insisted the firm had never, was not now, and never would aid and abet the activities of the Chinese intelligence services in Britain.

“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,” wrote Huawei’s Ding in his response to Lamb's letter. “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,” he said.

Customers cautious

In recent weeks, national network builder Openreach and mobile operator Vodafone have both defended their use of Huawei, with Vodafone’s general counsel Helen Lamprell challenging the firm’s detractors to produce any evidence it’s a bad actor.

Speaking exclusively to Computer Weekly earlier in March, Openreach chairman Mike McTighe expressed a certain amount of disappointment with Huawei, but said he had confidence the firm was responding to the concerns.

It’s disappointing that we still have a situation where Huawei can’t guarantee the code that they test [at HCSEC] is the code that’s out there in the kit,” said McTighe.

“I have had a number of engagements at senior level with Huawei and I think they probably saw the importance of this a little later than they should have, but I do think they are responding to it now.”

Openreach currently uses Huawei optical network terminals (ONTs) and optical line terminals (OLTs) – effectively the two ends of the fibre cable in customer homes and exchanges – but McTighe said he had pushed to have second sources of this equipment available.

“If we want to be part of the global supply chain that exists today, we have to accept that China is a really effective source of some products and services and technologies, and we just need to be sensible in how we deal with that,” said McTighe.

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