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MPs set sights on Huawei in 5G security probe

Weeks after UK government allowed access to radio access part of mobile networks, MPs announce inquiry into the use and security of equipment supplied by foreign companies for 5G networks

Despite the government passing regulations that would permit so-called high-risk foreign technology suppliers’ products to be used in the “access” part of UK mobile networks, if not the core, MPs have announced the formation of a sub-committee to probe the security of 5G networks.

Set up by the Commons Defence Committee, the inquiry will focus on the use and security of equipment in 5G networks supplied by foreign companies. It name checks explicitly Chinese telecoms supplier Huawei, whose products and services are already used by the UK’s leading telecoms and network providers.

The issue dates back to July 2019 when the UK government laid before the House of Commons its telecoms supply chain review concerning access to the network of so-called high-risk suppliers, in particular Huawei. To date, the government has said it has not been in a position to make a final decision because of the market uncertainty caused by the US government placing Huawei on its Entity List for restricted trading on national security grounds.

In November 2019, in a move that it rather tellingly called “nesting a dragon”, the UK government revealed that it would not be able to make a decision on allowing perceived high-risk suppliers access to the UK’s market for 5G infrastructure before Parliament was dissolved ahead of the December 2019 General Election. 

The decision was revealed in a letter from Nicky Morgan, then secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, to Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee.

Ahead of the dissolution of Parliament, Tugendhat’s committee had sought answers from Morgan on when the government would announce its final decision on allowing high-risk suppliers access to the UK’s nascent 5G telecommunications infrastructure.

“5G is the next generation of wireless technology and, although an exciting opportunity for the UK to strengthen its digital infrastructure, it is critical that we have a full understanding of the security implications”
Tobias Ellwood MP

The inquiry will examine the risks to the UK’s 5G infrastructure, along with options for mitigation. It will explore whether there are credible alternatives to Huawei systems and assess the geopolitical implications of the government’s decision to allow Huawei to provide up to 35% of the UK network, particularly looking at the UK’s alliances with the US and Australia. Once all the evidence has been gathered, members will make recommendations on the appropriate response by the UK government to these concerns.

“5G is the next generation of wireless technology and, although an exciting opportunity for the UK to strengthen its digital infrastructure, it is critical that we have a full understanding of the security implications,” said UK defence committee chair Tobias Ellwood MP.

“Once introduced, 5G will fast become an unextractable, indispensable part of our infrastructure as a country. It is paramount that, as we negotiate this new technology, we ask the uncomfortable questions about the possibility of abuse by foreign parties. A decision of this magnitude must be made with eyes wide open, and we will not shy away from tackling the public’s concerns head-on.”

Ellwood added that the committee would work to understand the legitimate concerns around the government’s decision to allow Huawei to contribute to the 5G network in the UK.

In January 2020, the UK government announced that high-risk suppliers such as Huawei should be excluded from all safety-related and safety-critical networks in UK critical national infrastructure; excluded from security-critical “core” functions, the sensitive part of the network; excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases; and limited to a minority presence of no more than 35% in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.

Commenting on the decision by the UK government, Huawei VP Victor Zhang, said: “Over the last 18 months, the government and two parliamentary committees have conducted detailed assessments of the facts and concluded there is no reason to ban Huawei from supplying 5G equipment on cyber security grounds. We have been operating in Britain for nearly 20 years, and played a vital role in the development and delivery of 3G and 4G for people across the UK. Cyber security requires high and common standards across the telecoms industry, which Huawei has always supported. Creating a 5G Britain rightly requires scrutiny and we will work with the Select Committee to address their questions in the coming months.”

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