A debate has been bubbling away in government for the last few years about the safety of using telecoms kit from Chinese tech firm, Huawei, to provide 5G mobile phone networks in the UK. Some are worried that infrastructure made by the firm – which is thought to be very close to the Chinese government – could compromise national security in some way.
As with most security matters, the details which have so far made it out into the media are not clear on exactly how security would be compromised, but one imagines spying and possibly sabotage as the potential threats. The United States has gone a stage further, by banning the use of Huawei equipment in telecoms infrastructure, and then putting pressure on its allies to boycott that equipment, too. It says it will limit its intelligence sharing with countries that are using the kit.
In a post-Brexit world, where Britain needs to ensure relations with the US are shored up, this has created a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, Huawei is a major player in the coming 5G mobile networks revolution, and clearly wants to be a key supplier in building out the systems needed to roll it out nationally. But on the other, Britain needs its security cooperation with the US intact – mainly as part of the Five Eyes system of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain and the US intelligence sharing.
The debate has reared its head again today, as the head of MI5 (the UK’s main domestic security agency), Andrew Parker, says he sees “no reason today to think that “cooperation with the US would be harmed by adoption of Huawei gear.
This is at odds with the fact that a delegation from America including people from its National Security Agency (NSA) are about to come to the UK to try and convince the government to implement a comprehensive ban.
It strikes me that the easy way out of this would be to find another supplier. It is true that Huawei is possibly the major player in this space, having been investing in the technology since at least 2007. But given there is some doubt about the security of its products, accusations of corruption, IP theft, and other assorted causes for concern surrounding the company, it would be wise to wait until either such problems can be satisfactorily ironed out, or another company comes along with stuff that doesn’t raise the same concerns.
This article from Foreign Policy is actually a pretty good crib sheet on why governments need to slow down and do the sensible thing.
Instead of yielding to a desire to be first, it’s the job of government to avoid being drawn into a race. Both Britain’s consumers and its businesses will one day be heavily reliant on this technology: we cannot afford to get it wrong.