Former UK surveillance head says calls to freeze Chinese companies out of 5G telecoms in Western countries are ‘short on technical understanding’

14-Feb-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Britain’s former surveillance chief has characterised the “chorus of voices” calling for a blanket ban on Chinese companies like Huawei Technologies from telecommunications networks in Western countries amid perceived cyber threats as being “short on technical understanding” of cybersecurity and the complexities of 5G networks.

While the government Communications Headquarters’ National Cyber Security Centre “has been blunt about Huawei’s shortcomings in security engineering and in its general attitude to cybersecurity”, it has “never found evidence of malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei,” Robert Hannigan, who was director of GCHQ from 2014 to 2017, wrote in the Financial Times on Tuesday.

That assessment is based on GCHQ’s evaluation of Huawei’s presence in British telecoms networks over some years, which has given it detailed insights into the company’s hardware, code, processes and policies, he wrote. A blanket security ban based on a company’s nationality is likely to be ineffective as state-linked cyber espionage attacks on IT-managed services providers around the world do not require the manipulation of companies such as Huawei, he said.

“There will need to be sensible restrictions on exactly where foreign technology is deployed [in network infrastructure] and a diversity of providers so that there is no single point of failure or potential leverage,” wrote Hannigan, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs. “But assertions that any Chinese technology in any part of a 5G network represents an unacceptable risk are nonsense.”

The Trump administration is expected to issue an executive order this week that would give the commerce secretary broad powers to stop American companies from doing business with foreign suppliers, which is likely to result in the barring of Chinese tech firms such as Huawei, The Washington Post reported, citing three US officials. The pending announcement comes as US officials step up the pressure on allies to stop using equipment from Huawei or risk their partnerships with the US.

Separately, Republican Senator Marco Rubio added to the rising backlash against China on Tuesday when he proposed legislation that would restrict and tax Chinese investments in the US to counter Beijing’s “Made in China 2025″ industrial modernisation programme, which includes direct subsidies for domestic companies developing advanced semiconductors.

China has pushed back at these moves, accusing the US of driving a wedge between China and other countries with “unwarranted reasons and ‘China threat’ rhetoric”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing this week.

More European telecoms operators are reviewing their plans to use Huawei over concerns that governments could ban the vendor, resulting in costly replacements. Britian-based Vodafone Group last month suspended purchases of Huawei equipment for the core of its wireless networks while it is in talks with various agencies, governments and the Chinese company. BT Group is removing Huawei equipment from the core of its mobile network. Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s biggest carrier, is also reviewing its procurement strategy.

Hannigan, the former GCHQ director, said in his FT op-ed that the UK and other European countries should “hold their nerve” and base decisions on Chinese involvement in future telecoms on technical expertise and rational risk assessment instead of “political fashion or trade wars”.

“We should accept that China will be a global tech power in the future and start managing the risk now, rather than pretending the west can sit out China’s technological rise,” he wrote.


Category: China

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