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UK in catch-22 decision over Huawei security

The UK’s final decision on whether to permit mobile operators to use Huawei equipment is expected imminently, and its decision will have ramifications far beyond the technology sphere

The British government faces a catch-22 decision when it comes to ruling on whether or not Huawei equipment is to be permitted to form part of the UK’s commercial 5G networks, and its decision will have ramifications beyond national security, according to the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Malcolm Chalmers.

Speaking on a media conference call on 27 January 2020, Chalmers said: “What’s very clear is that the government is in a really difficult dilemma, one it’s been in for the past 18 months or so, since this issue really rose on the agenda, particularly amongst Five Eyes countries.

“In its actions, the US government is arguing that it would be a significant risk to national security, indeed to the security of the UK’s allies, if any Huawei equipment was to be left in our telecoms networks – and that risk will increase as we move from 4G to 5G.

“That’s not consistent with the technical advice the UK government has been getting from experts based at the National Cyber Security Centre [NCSC], who are responsible for our nation’s cyber security,” he said.

Chalmers said the British government’s position had been made more difficult from a political standpoint because so much of the debate has been conducted openly, with the US running a very public campaign to convince the British government, opinion formers and media that the UK should remove Huawei kit from its networks.

He made it clear there was no dispute that Chinese state-backed threat actors present a significant threat to the cyber security of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, but said that given the stature of GCHQ and the NCSC, their advice – that Huawei equipment can be safely used in non-core parts of 5G networks – should be taken seriously, albeit tempered by prudence that despite Huawei’s protestations, the Chinese state most likely has the ability and will to exploit it.

This, he suggested, was leading to a disconnect between political conversations about Huawei and technical conversations about Huawei, which was making it hard for the UK to move forward, and likely why the final decision has been delayed for so long when officials and mobile operators were ready for it some time ago.

Read more about Huawei and China

Chalmers said that the clear cost to the UK of conceding to the US’s demands would, at face value, be an economic one, slowing the roll-out of 5G and holding back the government’s digital ambitions. However, he went on, it also threw out a more broad question about the future relationship between the UK and the US after Brexit.

“The US has chosen to make this a test of alliance solidarity in such a public way,” he said. “It’s become a symbol of whether the UK, and indeed other European allies, are able to maintain some degree of independence in their approach to the challenge of China.”

“Clearly if the UK were to be asked to choose between the US and China on a broad macro level then there’s no question what it would choose. But that’s not the same as the US being given the prerogative to decide how the UK or other countries should shape their relationship with China.

“The UK clearly wants to be able to work in very close cooperation with its allies on this issues,” said Chalmers. “But it also doesn’t want to be subordinate – particularly, I think, to a US government which at the moment has an unpredictable and a shifting position in relation to trade with China. It’s hard to be entirely in line with US policy, which is shifting often in ways which don’t involve much consultation with allies.” 

Over the past few days, the rhetoric from the Trump administration over Huawei, in particular the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, has ramped up. Pompeo is set to meet with Boris Johnson and foreign secretary Dominic Raab later in the week.

On Sunday 26 January, Pompeo tweeted that the UK faced a momentous decision and implied that to allow Huawei into its national 5G infrastructure would threaten its sovereignty, as he shared a Daily Mail opinion article by MP Tom Tugendhat.

The US has previously threatened to withdraw military and intelligence collaboration from allied states that permit their mobile operators to use Huawei kit.

RUSI recommends

Detailing the RUSI’s key recommendations when it comes to Huawei, James Sullivan, the organisation’s head of cyber security research, said: “As we know, there’s been a lot of reporting last week on what the UK’s decision was likely to be, and in the UK this could mean excluding Huawei technology from the most sensitive parts of the 5G network while allowing it to supply peripheral components such as mobile phone masts and antennae.

“The view of our research and our conclusion is that this would be a practical and realistic decision that adheres to the principles of cyber risk management and reflects the expert view of the UK’s national technical authority, the NCSC,” he said. “Our research argues that 5G considerations should depend on national context and this includes the geographic location of equipment, national cyber security experience, supplier availability and cost.

“Having said that we’re talking about this from a technical perspective. There are also political, economic and human rights considerations. In our research we have acknowledged that these may end up being overriding factors that lead to a decision to ban or partially ban a vendor from a particular nation, and we acknowledge that this may be an entirely legitimate national approach,” said Sullivan.

“But states must be very clear about the extent to which political, rather than technical factors, inform the decision relating to 5G. Otherwise the argument becomes confused and importantly it undermines the authority of national technical experts.”

He said that 5G was symptomatic of a wider issue around the globalisation of technology, relating to the pivot of innovation from the West to the Far East. On this basis, RUSI is to recommend that states such as the UK rapidly identify gaps in advanced and emerging areas of technology where greater diversity of suppliers, or even “sovereign technology”, may be needed and incorporate those gaps into national industrial strategies.

Chalmers said that if any good was to come from the Huawei affair, it would be in the form of a realisation that cyber security needs to be taken more seriously, and an understanding of the importance of addressing wider challenges than just Huawei. That will have to be addressed through better attention to network design and ensuring that suppliers – whether Western ones or not – are giving priority to security, even if it’s not in their commercial interests.

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