In Depth

The Huawei backlash explained

US delegates visit UK to lobby PM to ban Chinese tech company

The head of MI5 has shrugged off US warnings about future intelligence sharing if the UK includes Huawei equipment in its 5G infrastructure.

Andrew Parker said he has “no reason to think” that the UK’s intelligence relationship with the US would suffer if the UK used Huawei technology in its mobile phone network.

Why has the MI5 boss spoken out now?

The comments come as Boris Johnson faces last-minute lobbying from Washington to exclude Huawei from the UK’s network, as the prime minister prepares to make a final decision this month.

Johnson is under pressure from Beijing not to jeopardise the UK-China relationship, and his decision will be seen as a key indicator of the direction the prime minister wants the country to take after Brexit, says the Financial Times.

Parker’s comments to the paper suggest that Johnson is preparing to allow Huawei a slice of the UK’s non-core infrastructure.

Core infrastructure is where sensitive information such as billing and customer details are stored, whereas non-core elements are the aerials and base stations on masts and rooftops, and transmission equipment.

The Times previously reported that senior US cybersecurity officials had warned that Britain would harm “economic and military cooperation between the countries” if it used Huawei for its next-generation 5G mobile network. An official said American authorities believed the Chinese company was in part funded by Chinese state security.

What is the US issue with Huawei?

Huawei is a “crucial part of China’s efforts to advance super-fast 5G networks but it has been labelled a national security threat by the United States”, reports CNN

Amid fears that China could use Huawei products to spy on other countries, the US is pressurising allies not to use its technology to build new 5G networks.

Huawei has “always denied any improper links with the Chinese state and researchers have never found any evidence of such back doors”, says The Economist.

But sceptics wonder how possible it is for even a well-intentioned company to avoid forced cooperation with the Chinese government. Given that America’s government is “not above implanting bugs into kit made by its own technology firms, it would be a leap to assume that China’s intelligence services were not at least exploring similar possibilities”, the magazine adds.

Indeed the company’s user privacy standards have been heavily scrutinised since US authorities undertook an 18-month investigation into whether the gadget maker was spying on behalf of the Chinese government.

The probe, concluded in 2012, found no evidence to suggest that the Chinese tech firm spied on its users, but revealed several security flaws that could expose devices to hackers, says Reuters.

This raised questions about whether these flaws were accidental or had been included deliberately, the news site says. If the flaws were intentional, they could have provided so-called bad actors – or governments – with access points to millions of devices that could be used for mass espionage.

Last August, Donald Trump signed a bill that largely banned the use of Huawei devices by the US government and its contractors.

A number of mobile network providers including BT in the UK and others in countries such as the US, New Zealand and Australia are also saying they won’t use technology sourced from the company for the upcoming switch to 5G connections. 

What next?

Parker’s comments come as officials from the US National Security Agency are visiting the UK in a last attempt to persuade the prime minister to ban Huawei products being used in UK infrastructure.

A final decision has been repeatedly delayed after a decision was taken in principle last spring to allow Huawei to supply “non-core” elements of the network, reports The Guardian.

Parker said intelligence sharing between the US-UK was “very close and trusted”, adding “it is, of course, of great importance to us. And, I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It is a two-way street.”

Speaking last month, Johnson told the Nato summit that he didn’t want the UK to be hostile to foreign investment, but national security and continued international intelligence cooperation was the priority.

“We cannot prejudice our vital national security interests, nor can we prejudice our ability to cooperate with other Five Eyes [US, New Zealand Australia and Canada] security partners. That will be the key criterion that informs our decision about Huawei.”

The UK will make a final decision in the next few weeks.

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