Recents in Beach

Huawei 5G verdict is a decision 'with few good options'

Whether to allow Huawei to help build the UK's 5G network is one of the most consequential and difficult national security decisions a British government has ever faced.

The decision - due to be made at a meeting of the National Security Council later - involves balancing complex technical risks with geopolitics and costs to the economy.
But it is also an issue where room for manoeuvre is tight - partly thanks to a series of decisions going back over the years which have closed down options.
If you want to understand how we got where we are, it is worth going back more than a decade and a half to when BT was upgrading the UK's telecoms infrastructure.
It wanted to use Huawei equipment because it was cheaper.

BT - using a trick that operators are still using today - warned that excluding Huawei would cost vast amounts of money requiring compensation from the government.
Few at the time appreciated the significance of the decision.
It was only after it had been taken that officials began to question whether it had opened up the UK to surveillance or even sabotage from China - something Huawei itself has always said is impossible.

And so a strategy was created to minimise the danger.
Steps included making sure there were multiple suppliers in the network and ensuring risky vendors (in others words Huawei) were kept out of the most sensitive parts of the network (for instance the core which controls how it functions).
The history means the UK intelligence community believes it has a much better understanding than anyone else about how to manage the risk from Huawei.

'Intense' security


As the use of Huawei spread to other telecoms operators, the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) was created to carefully evaluate the physical equipment and the code that Huawei was introducing into the UK.

I visited what became known as "the cell" in Banbury 2013.
The security was intense - in one inner room a computer with access to the Huawei source code sat watched by CCTV cameras to prevent any unauthorised access.
No deliberate backdoor or evidence of espionage has ever been found. But there have been issues.
A 2018 oversight report was highly critical of the company's engineering standards, and the 2019 report said no material progress had been made to address those concerns, which left it with only "limited assurance" that security could be protected.
This experience though has created a degree of confidence from intelligence and security officials that they can mitigate the risks of using Huawei in a 5G network, by putting in place a suite of restrictions.
But they also caution that the ultimate decision has to be political since it involves balancing the technical advice with the diplomatic and economic costs.
The 5G network is being built partly on top of 4G, so excluding Huawei from 5G in the UK (unlike the US where it plays almost no role) also means ripping it out of 4G.
That will be costly and slow down the roll-out of increased connectivity, which this government has made a priority.
That decision has also been made harder by delay - it was due to be taken nearly a year ago but leaks and elections have got in the way.

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