The United Kingdom could undermine an American-led campaign to keep Chinese tech company Huawei out of super-fast 5G mobile networks around the world.
The National Cyber Security Centre, part of the UK intelligence service, has concluded that there are ways to limit the risks of using Huawei to build next-generation wireless networks, according to a report by the Financial Times.
Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecommunications equipment, has been on the defensive in recent months as the US government has pushed for the company’s technology to be banned, alleging that it could be used by China for spying. Australia and New Zealand have already blocked mobile carriers from using Huawei for 5G networks, and other governments, including the United Kingdom, are reviewing the situation.
Huawei has strenuously denied that its equipment poses any security risk and has criticized moves to shut it out of networks as “irresponsible decisions” made for political reasons. Industry executives and analysts say that the US pressure on Huawei risks delaying the rollout of 5G networks in key markets because the company is way ahead of its rivals in developing the technology.
The National Cyber Security Centre declined to comment Monday on the specifics of the Financial Times report but said in a statement that it has “a unique oversight and understanding of Huawei engineering and cyber security.”
The intelligence agency is playing an important role in a broader UK government review examining the security of technology that operators plan to use in 5G networks in the country.
“The review is looking at a range of options and will conclude in the spring. No decisions have been taken and any suggestion to the contrary is inaccurate,” the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said in a statement Monday.
A spokesperson for Huawei said Monday that the company advocates an open dialogue on security.
“Cybersecurity is an issue which needs to be addressed across the whole industry,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We remain focused on working with our customers to help them deliver world leading technology.”
A potential rift for the Five Eyes?
If the UK government decides that Huawei equipment can be used for 5G, it’s likely to strain relations with Washington.
The United Kingdom is part of a close intelligence-sharing alliance with the United States known as Five Eyes, which also includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The approval of Huawei technology by one member of the group would undercut the American offensive against the company.
Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday that the United States has been “very clear” with its security partners about the threat posed by Huawei and other Chinese telecoms companies.
“We must protect our critical telecom infrastructure, and America is calling on all our security partners to be vigilant and to reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or our national security systems,” Pence told attendees at the Munich Security Conference.
New 5G networks are set to increase the speed of wireless internet on smartphones, and allow larger numbers of internet-enabled devices to communicate with each other more efficiently. That could advance plans for things like smart cities in which connected cars can communicate with traffic systems.
A British government oversight panel that monitors Huawei’s activities in the United Kingdom warned last year that it can provide only “limited assurance” that the company’s telecoms equipment poses no threat to national security.
The supervisory panel also said that “technical issues” had been identified in Huawei’s engineering processes, leading to “new risks in the UK telecommunications networks.”
Huawei has responded by promising to invest $2 billion to address those concerns through improvements in its software engineering capabilities. The company said in a recent letter to UK lawmakers that it could take as long as five years before the upgrade shows “tangible results.”
UK could influence others
How Huawei fares in the United Kingdom could influence decisions by other governments that have stepped up scrutiny of the company’s products, such as Germany.
BT Group (BT), which runs one of the top UK mobile operators, said in December that it would not use Huawei equipment in the heart of its 5G network, which launches this year in 16 UK cities. The company said at the time that it would keep Huawei as an “important equipment provider outside the core network,” using its equipment in areas that are considered “benign,” such as masts or towers.
In an interview with CNN Business earlier this month, a top BT executive said the company has seen no evidence that Huawei technology poses a security risk.
“Over the years that we’ve worked with Huawei, we’ve not yet seen anything that gives us cause for concern,” said Marc Allera, the CEO of BT’s consumer brands.
Samuel Burke contributed reporting.