In an impassioned address to a House of Lord select committee, US senator Tom Cotton has warned the UK Parliament that the country’s continued usage of Huawei in telecoms networks could not only threaten the UK’s national defence but also potentially damage intelligence relations between the US and UK.
The usage of Huawei kit in the UK’s networks has been a political hot potato since July 2019 when in its Telecoms supply chain review report, the UK government asked the country’s National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) to consider issuing guidance to UK telecoms operators in relation to companies regarded as posing security and resilience risks to UK telecoms networks, with Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei commonly regarded as key examples.
Huawei’s 5G-enabling technology, along with non-4G kit, has long been present on the operators’ networks. If forced to remove Huawei from the network, such as in the many base stations, the operators calculated that the cost would run into hundreds of millions of pounds and would dramatically affect their 5G business case, effectively meaning a refresh of 4G networks to overlay new 5G technology.
After a long period of wrangling, rumour and high-stakes political lobbying, and much to the relief of the country’s telco community, the UK government decided in January 2020 not to follow the US and Australia and ban totally leading Chinese tech firms from supplying their equipment for the UK’s growing 5G infrastructure.
The advice was that while co-called high-risk suppliers such as Huawei should be excluded from all safety-related and safety-critical networks in critical national infrastructure; excluded from security-critical “core” functions, the sensitive part of the network; excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases; and limited to a minority presence of no more than 35% in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.
Yet despite this announcement, the UK government has had to fend off opposition from within its own ranks to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill ratifying its decision. On 10 March 2020, it narrowly avoided defeat on an amendment to its bill that would have seen firms classified as high-risk by the NCSC banned entirely from the UK’s 5G project by 31 December 2022.
Attitudes towards to Huawei though seem to have hardened over the months, and at the end of May 2020 the NCSC announced that it would conduct a further investigation into the use of Huawei technology in the country’s communications networks.
Cotton’s address, ratcheting up the pressure on Huawei, came in an evidence session of the UK’s Defence Committee on the geopolitics of 5G. The Arkansas senator spoke along with brigadier general (ret.) Robert Spalding, a fellow at the Hudson Institute whose work focuses on US-China relations, and former senior director for strategy to the US President. The session will also hear from Mike Rogers, chairman of 5G Action Now and a former chairman of the permanent select committee on intelligence in the House of Representatives. Rogers authored a 2012 report on Huawei and ZTE and the perceived threats they pose to US national security.
The session – related to the committee’s inquiry into the security of 5G – considered the international response to the UK government’s decision to allow Huawei to continue to operate in its 5G network and assess approaches to 5G and cyber security from across the Five Eyes alliance, the association of intelligence agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK.
The session examined the implications of the government’s decision for information sharing across the alliance and discussed prospects for a western vendor of 5G. It also took a broader look at China’s international ambitions and the role of 5G and technology within this, specifically focusing on cyber attacks and the so-called Digital Silk Road.
Talking to the committee of MPs by video link, Cotton stressed that he was giving evidence in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the US government, yet made a blunt attack on the technology supplier and its alleged links to its home country’s intelligence services, that he feared China was “attempting to drive a hi-tech wedge” between the US and the UK using Huawei.
Acknowledging the earlier decision of the UK government to restrict the use of Huawei technology to the radio access network only, Cotton said technical experts in the US and in other friendly countries disagreed with the UK’s assessment. The same experts had warned that China could use Huawei to obtain a host of damaging information, such as how air crews fly, to intrusive personal information.
US senator Tom Cotton
He added that the deployment of Huawei in UK 5G phone networks would have been the equivalent of allowing Warsaw to build submarines for western nations during the Cold War, and that snooping technology embedded within Huawei network equipment would allow access to sensitive government documents.
Broadening his attack to Chinese suppliers in general, he said: “5G is such a technological leap beyond 3G and 4G technology; it is so central to the way that economies will function in the future and in the way that our countries will secure ourselves that I believe using Huawei technology, using ZTE technology, using any technology from a company that is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party would be as if we had relied on adversarial nations in the Cold War to build our submarines or to build our tanks. It’s just not something that we would ever have considered. There are certain technologies that are so sensitive and so integral and vital to our prosperity and security we would never use an adversarial nation for that technology.”
Going forward, Cotton said the UK could reject Huawei 5G technology and “go down another path” and join other “powerful, free” nations and develop a 5G solution that does not empower Chinese intelligence. The senator welcomed reported moves by the UK away from Huawei technology and potential US/UK cooperation in these matters.
Responding to the senator’s comments, Huawei said it was clear it was market position, rather than security concerns, that was underpinning America’s attack on Huawei as the committee was given no evidence to substantiate security allegations.
“[The] committee concentrated on America’s desire for a home-grown 5G company that can ‘match’ or ‘beat’ Huawei,” said Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang. “We welcome open and fair competition as it fosters innovation and drives down costs for everyone. Over the last 20 years, we have worked hard with our customers and partners for building Britain’s robust and secure 3G and 4G networks, and we are now focused on delivering the 5G network to the same high standards. This is fundamental to achieving the government’s gigabit broadband target by 2025.”