With Boris Johnson’s government deciding to allow Huawei into Britain’s 'non-core' 5G networks, London is charting a new path for Western nations dealing with Huawei. The UK is not the first European nation to accept Huawei as part of their national 5G systems, but it is perhaps the most significant. London’s success in limiting Huawei’s influence in the system, not to mention ensuring cyber security, will be the test of whether the world truly can live with Huawei, or whether resistance is futile against the dominant global telecommunications company. It also will force the American government to decide whether its current information-sharing arrangements with the UK are now at risk.
In attempting to mitigate a potentially major role for Huawei, the UK government announced that the company would be limited to providing 35 per cent of the 'non-sensitive' parts of the system, such as antennae and base stations, and will be entirely blocked off from sensitive areas such as military and intelligence networks. Yet it is hard to disentangle core from non-core, and data routing components (such as base stations and antennae) can be particularly vulnerable to interference.
Huawei poses three key risks for any nation considering incorporating its technology into 5G networks. First, by almost any objective assessment, the company is a security risk due to the lack of proper security protocols in its software. A study by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre concluded that Huawei’s systems had 'significant issues' and defects that called into question the security of information traveling on Huawei equipment. Despite the company’s promises of billions of dollars in security upgrades, little has objectively been accomplished to plug the security gaps.
The second risk is more dramatic: that Huawei components can be used to illegally spy on users by pilfering data, using 'back doors' to send information back to Huawei data centres. Despite repeated denials, the company has failed to convincingly prove it has no connections with the Chinese government or military. Moreover, given China’s recent national intelligence law, private companies and individuals in China are required to provide data and assist the government in intelligence collection, and it would be naïve to think that Huawei is somehow exempt from such requirements.
While arcane to non-specialists, the ability to gather metadata and user information from another party’s telecommunications system and conduct traffic analysis can be of enormous benefit to China’s security services. Sophisticated firmware built into telecommunications systems can go undetected without rigorous counter-security measures. And, some of Huawei’s vulnerabilities have already been discovered. This is one of the main reasons that the Trump administration urged London to block Huawei’s participation in the UK’s 5G network.
Third, Huawei represents the spearhead of a Chinese attempt to dominate the digital future. In doing so, Western economies are at risk of being reduced to mere customers of China’s communications, fintech and e-commerce systems. Huawei is the world’s dominant telecommunications company and, with massive government support, it and other Chinese companies are attempting to surpass the United States as the producer of the world’s most sophisticated semiconductor chips, including so-called 'AI chips'. Author David Goldman has argued that once Huawei and other Chinese companies build the broadband, e-commerce and fintech follow, cementing China’s hegemony over the global economy.
Given the lack of alternatives to Huawei in 5G technology, London may have decided that it simply had no choice but to allow the company into the nation’s networks. Indeed, this is becoming the default position of other governments around the world. From that perspective, Western nations have no one to blame but themselves for failing to recognise the coming era of 5G and work with national companies to create alternatives to Huawei. Through their failure to compete, Western democratic nations must now accept a future of unknown risk in dealing with Huawei.
Britain’s decision marks a gamble that open societies can rigorously monitor and effectively protect themselves against Huawei’s shoddy security protocols, potential illicit activities, and market-dominating tactics. But maintaining close relations with the Americans, not only in intelligence sharing but on overall cybersecurity issues, will add a further layer of complexity to No. 10’s calculations. If successful in protecting the UK’s vital public and private information, and in limiting Huawei’s influence over the system, then London will have written a new playbook for dealing with China.
It would be overly optimistic, however, to assume that things will go so smoothly. Instead, a future of unrelenting vigilance will be required to ensure the safety of data and continued growth in national economies. Given the West’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the 5G revolution, there is good reason to doubt the seriousness of the democratic world’s willingness to change course and ability to protect itself.