We’re fairly used to this government’s IT blunders now. Only recently there was the fiasco of the NHS coronavirus app – it was predicted here that it would be ‘dead-on-arrival’, weeks before the government was eventually forced to admit the same.
Now with each passing month comes yet another poor decision by the UK. The latest of which is the plan to remove Huawei from UK 5G infrastructure over the next seven years. Politically, the justification is sensible. Technologically, it borders on farcical.
To understand the Huawei issue, it’s best to think of a simple home network, involving a modem, a WiFi router and a smart TV. All three of these devices play some role in delivering the latest episode of your favourite Netflix series. The UK’s telecoms infrastructure is similar. Just as the Netflix episode will pass through your modem and router to your TV, so a signal is passed from Point A to Point B via a number of pieces of hardware: primarily cables, telecoms masts and signal decoding boxes. The Huawei kit we are now destined to remove at great cost is one of those pieces of hardware, and it plays a vital role in ensuring the signal can be delivered at high speed and low cost.
The important thing to understand is that the signal that passes through Huawei’s hardware is encrypted at all times – similar to how your messages over WhatsApp cannot be read by Facebook. The overall control of the signal does not belong to any of the individual components, just by virtue of passing through them. It belongs to the UK.
The suggestion is that Huawei – and for Huawei, read China – has a mysterious way of remotely accessing their hardware on the UK network (which is reasonable), and then is processing the data on it to send back to China (which is not). Huawei would then have to be able to crack the encryption key to be able to read the data when they receive it.
The idea though that they could export this data without anyone noticing in Britain is absurd. So why is this risk being considered great enough to set UK infrastructure back over the next decade?
The only feasible justification for the above technical marvel would be that China has found a way to hack global encryption standards. Relying on this premise is dangerous, however, because if true, its implications would be far more serious than the leverage China has in the UK’s 5G network. If global encryption standards are broken in this way, nearly all computer systems around the world would be defenceless. It’s an idea that borders on being a conspiracy theory.
Ultimately, it’s the British citizen who will lose out most on the Huawei decision, because there’s absolutely no other decent contender in the market to provide this technology – technology which will enable self-driving cars to deliver your grocery shopping for you, or that can improve the UK’s ability to work from home (which we can all agree is sorely needed after the experience of the last few months).
Instead of concerning ourselves with the hardware and taking rash technology decisions for political advantage, we would be far better as a country investing heavily in growing our digital skills at home. The money spent on ripping out and replacing Huawei kit could build new cyber-monitoring centres to protect the UK from the very attacks it fears. Or it could be spent training young people in digital skills and putting them on the front line of the UK’s digital economy.
Instead, in seven years we will end up with another NHS app on a much larger scale: a telecoms network which is not fit-for-purpose, is poorly understood and lumbers along slowly behind the rest of the world. All while China pushes forward with their digital growth, enlarging the gulf further between East and West in the race for technological dominance.