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The current regulatory situation for network security is “outdated and unsatisfactory” and lacks sufficient clout to stop network operators from prioritising profit over the UK’s national security, a report compiled by the parliamentary Defence Committee has warned.
The report said that while the decision to force the UK’s operators to purge their networks of Huawei was a step in the right direction, the goal of completing this by 2027 should be brought forward by two years, and it urged the government to take all necessary steps to minimise any delays, and to consider compensating operators if the deadline is moved forward.
“Protecting the public and preserving our nation’s security are among the principal responsibilities of government,” said committee chairman Tobias Ellwood. “The decision to embed a technology that compromises this would constitute a gross dereliction of these duties.”
The committee said its inquiry had found “clear evidence” that despite its protestations, Huawei was colluding to some extent with the Chinese state and that the designation of the firm as a high-risk supplier by the government was entirely appropriate and justified.
The committee’s inquiry also noted that the UK’s Five Eyes surveillance allies – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – had initially acted against Huawei in a way that was at odds with the UK, and that the government had failed to consider the potential damage to key alliances from forging its own path. It concluded that this alone was enough of a concern to start removing Huawei from the UK’s 5G networks.
In the light of this, the committee urged the government to introduce its proposed Telecoms Security Bill by the end of 2020 to enable Westminster to compel operators to act in the interests of national security. It said the current situation had led to commercial concerns trumping security ones.
“The government’s decision earlier this year was a step in the right direction,” said Ellwood. “However, current regulations are porous and legislation lacks teeth, continuing to allow telecoms companies to prioritise profit over the public’s and the nation’s security.
“Thankfully, Huawei, and the risks that foreign technology pose to our national security, have garnered much-needed and long-overdue attention in recent months. The government must ensure that legislation is airtight, leaving no room for companies to slip through the cracks. Enacting the Telecoms Security Bill by the end of this year is imperative, as this will bring regulations up to date.”
The Defence Committee is also supporting a fresh proposal to form a wider alliance of 10 friendly democracies, which would comprise the G7 states plus Australia, South Korea and India. Together, these countries would work together to provide alternatives to Chinese network technology and combat the technological dominance of authoritarian states.
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“The West must urgently unite to advance a counterweight to China’s tech dominance,” said Ellwood. “As every aspect of our lives becomes increasingly reliant on access to data movement, we must develop a feasible, practical and cost-effective alternative to the cheap, high-tech solutions which can be preyed upon and which come stooped with conditions that ensnare a state into long-term allegiance to China.
“We must not surrender our national security for the sake of short-term technological development. This is a false and wholly unnecessary trade-off. A new D10 alliance, which unites the world’s 10 strongest democracies, would provide a viable alternative foundation to the technological might of authoritarian states, whose true motives are, at times, murky.”
Ellwood added: “Democracies the world over are waking up to the dangers of new technology from overseas, which could inadvertently provide hostile states with access to sensitive information through the backdoor.”
In the light of the exclusion of Huawei, the committee also concluded that the 5G supplier market was not nearly diverse enough, and urged the government to help operators introduce new suppliers to the UK market and encourage the development of advanced networking technology in the UK.
It said that pursuing the OpenRAN standard might provide an opportunity to break out of the current consolidated environment – something that the government’s recently announced telecoms supply chain task force is actively working on.