On 1 May 2019, Gavin Williamson was unceremoniously sacked from his post as the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, after Prime Minister Theresa May concluded that he was responsible for leaking details from a National Security Council (NSC) meeting about the possible involvement of Chinese telecoms company Huawei in the development of the UK’s 5G network.
Williamson’s dismissal came after a report which was published in The Telegraph: this detailed discussions at the NSC, and included the claim that the Prime Minister had overruled several ministers to allow Huawei to participate in building “non-core” parts of the 5G network, despite many warnings against such an action from the USA.
In fact, May’s decision should not have come as any great surprise: as long ago as March 2015, the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee published a report noting that Huawei’s networking technology – supplied at that time to major British network providers such as BT, O2, and EE – was not aiding the Chinese government or threatening national security.
However, the green light given by the NSC in April was described in The Telegraph as “a decision that has already led to bitter divides between ministers and MPs on all sides of the Commons, and has the potential to open a rift between Britain and its most significant ally - the United States”.
Huawei has been put under a great deal of pressure from US authorities in the last couple of years, and particularly in recent months. Criticisms centre primarily on national security issues, with the Chinese company routinely accused of using its technology for cyber espionage purposes. In other words, there are concerns that Huawei-manufactured equipment could contain backdoors used for surveillance and gathering intelligence. Beijing has rejected all the allegations.
Some countries have already heeded the call of the US government and have banned Huawei from any involvement in the development of their 5G networks: Australia and New Zealand, both members of the Five Eyes intelligence group, are among them. Canada is still considering the issues, leaving the UK as the only member of the alliance to have publicly declared that it plans to proceed with the Chinese company.
Huawei comes under suspicion for various reasons, most notably because it is generally believed to be controlled by the Chinese state. While it is described as an “employee-owned” company, there are questions about its true status and direct or indirect ties to the Chinese military and Communist Party: these are difficult issues to evaluate. A useful paper (Who owns Huawei?) examining the ownership and structure of the company can be downloaded from the SSRN eLibrary. Note that the authors conclude: “Regardless of who, in a practical sense, owns and controls Huawei, it is clear that the employees do not.”
An interesting example of the pressure which the US is exerting on European allies was seen in March this year, when the Trump administration reportedly told the German government that it would reduce intelligence cooperation if Huawei was allowed to provide any of the technology behind the country’s 5G mobile networks. Despite being the leading European economy, Germany lags behind in mobile technology, with much of the country still limited to 3G, and some to 2G. While Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that her government would consult the US over any use of Huawei’s technology, she emphasised that she would also discuss future plans with Europe and her administration would define its own standards.
At EU level it was also announced in March that the European Commission has declined to adhere to the US call to ban Huawei from EU networks; instead, member states currently considering issuing licences will be required to share data and submit a national risk assessment of their 5G network infrastructure by the end of June 2019.
In April, just days before Gavin Williamson was ousted, various media outlets, including Bloomberg and the BBC, published articles about Vodafone disclosing that it had discovered several vulnerabilities in equipment supplied to it in Italy by Huawei nearly ten years ago. However, it then emerged that the backdoor Vodafone had acknowledged in its Italian 3G network was actually a Telnet-based remote debug interface, a common LAN-facing diagnostic service that has no malicious purpose. Even though Huawei confirmed that the flaws had been dealt with long ago, Vodafone halted its work.
While western countries continue to evaluate the possibilities of using Huawei’s technology, which is reportedly far more advanced than that currently offered by Ericsson and Nokia, Russia has shown an interest in dealing with the Chinese company.
What is interesting to note here is that - despite any debates over the ownership of Huawei - it is essentially state-controlled, and this illustrates a close relationship between the Russian and Chinese governments in the fields of IT and telecommunications, and a willingness on the part of both to liaise in the development of cyber security strategies – and perhaps cyber warfare too.
The obvious implications to be drawn here are that there are concerns among US and other western security agencies that China and its allies such as Russia could use the opportunity of access to critical telecoms infrastructure as part of their own cyber polices, both offensive and defensive, in any future global conflicts.
Such issues are also no doubt uppermost in the mind of Gavin Williamson. While the former Defence Secretary is continuing to declare his innocence and denies leaking details of the NSC meeting to the press, one thing is certain: the prospect of a Chinese company participating in the UK’s 5G network is now fully in the public domain, and further debate is inevitable.