Huawei, 5G And Security: An Essential Guide
Huawei, 5G and security. What's all that about then?
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As the U.K. government, led by prime minister Boris Johnson, this week confirmed that it would allow Huawei to be part of the British 5G technology rollout, you are probably not alone in wondering just what this all means.
On the surface, it seems that President Trump thinks Huawei is a threat to national security while Huawei appears to regard itself as an innocent bystander in someone else's argument, that someone else being the U.S. and China.
The truth, as always, is out there; and I've been trying to find it.
Here is, then, my essential guide to Huawei, 5G, and nation-state security. An explainer stripped, as far as is possible, of political bias or emotional baggage. Just the facts as seen through my lens of understanding, and hopefully enough of them for you to jump into any bar room argument with some rational and balanced debate.
What is Huawei?
Huawei is the world’s largest vendor of telecommunications equipment, bar none. This Chinese multinational technology company, which you probably know best for manufacturing smartphones truth be told, took that accolade from Ericsson back in 2012.
No slouch when it comes to smartphone sales, Huawei is the second-biggest smartphone maker globally, behind only Samsung. Apple currently sits fourth on this list. Huawei is also the world's biggest maker of 5G phones, with a 36.9% market share equating to 6.
9 million 5G-enabled smartphones shipped in 2019. Founded in 1987, Huawei now employs more than 194,000 people and in December 2019 reported an annual revenue of $121.72 billion (£93.59 billion.
) Huawei chairman, Erix Xu, forecast 2020 as being a “difficult year” with growth slowing when he revealed those numbers. “The external environment is becoming more complicated than ever,” he said.
Where to begin? How about with the executive order signed by President Trump in May 2019, that gave the federal government the power to block U.S.
companies from doing business with suppliers that could pose a threat to national security? When Huawei Technologies was added to the trade blacklist, the response from companies such as Google was quick.
New handsets would no longer be able to use Google apps such as Gmail, Chrome, or . Huawei is reported to have replacements for Google apps and critical underlying services.
When it comes to the equipment that underpins the roll 5G technology, the U.S. has taken the firmest possible stance against Huawei: the Chinese company is banned from providing any equipment for the U.S.
network at all. The military background of Huawei's founder, Ren Zhengfei, a former deputy director of the People's Liberation Army engineering corps, has played a part in the U.S.
security concerns according to reports.
Does Huawei pose a threat to national-security with 5G equipment?
The U.S. certainly appears to think so, the U.K. not so much. It has been reported that President Trump considers any deal to allow Huawei to provide 5G network equipment is a “grave threat to national security.” The threat has been downplayed by security and intelligence experts in the U.K. who claim that any risk to national security can be mitigated.
Andrew Parker, the director-general of the U.K. Security Service, also known as MI5, has suggested the 5G infrastructure role of Huawei can be kept to non-core parts of the network.
So while there is a concern in some quarters regarding the type of kit, the switches, gateways and routers that control data movement, by restricting Huawei's involvement to things antennas, this risk is mitigated.
The truth is somewhat blurry, as are the distinctions between core and non-core technological elements when it comes to 5G infrastructure.
Security, in general, is a harder proposition when it comes to 5G because of this boundary-blurring. However, the arguments against Huawei appear to most neutral observers at any rate, to be more of the political variety than strictly cybersecurity concerns.
Sure, there will be vulnerabilities found in Huawei kit, just as there are in any hardware and software solutions. That doesn't mean those vulnerabilities were put there at the behest of the Chinese government, nor does it rule that possibility out, of course.
However, one could ask the same questions of Western technology manufacturers with regards to backdoors and the , are they there at the behest of U.S. intelligence agencies?
The elephant in the room is, I would suggest, encryption. If sensitive data moving across any 5G network infrastructure is adequately encrypted, as it surely will be, then the question of hostile state interception and snooping becomes moot.
Muddying the security water
There can be no doubt, despite all that has been said about Huawei as a company, that tensions between China and the West exist and will continue to do so it would seem.
Arguments in favor of allowing Huawei involvement in 5G network development are diluted by the National Intelligence Law passed by China in 2017 that requires organizations to “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.
” Huawei has gone on record to state that it would “rather shut the company down” than maliciously violate the trust of its customers.
And trust is where this whole debate starts and finishes. Huawei is less starring role and more supporting actor when it comes to the bigger picture.
It is the lack of trust between Western nations and the Chinese state that is center stage. This is not, fundamentally, about the Huawei kit.
Instead, it is about whether “we” trust China any more than we trust Russia when it comes to state surveillance and broader cyber-warfare capabilities.