Do Huawei’s US woes reflect a 5G power struggle?

Do Huawei’s US woes reflect a 5G power struggle?

Before the end of this month, the US is expected to request the formal extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou from Canada.

The development would be a climactic twist in a saga that has dominated headlines since Meng’s arrest in December, but the story is far from over – because it isn’t merely about the accusations against the CFO. Indeed, the ongoing US security concerns surrounding Huawei have deep ramifications for the future of 5G.

The first 5G trials are already underway, and aim to deliver on a vision of interconnected cities powered by the lightning-fast transfer of data between sensors and devices. However, the aim of 5G is to facilitate every level of life, and control over such an all-pervasive ecosystem would place great power in the hands of its wielder.

US suspicion of Huawei is nothing new - the Chinese vendor has long been effectively barred from selling to the US market – but the prevalence of Huawei’s equipment in the construction of 5G networks is evidently considered a bridge too far in the fight to stay in control of the technology. Over the past year, the New York Times reports that US authorities have firmly cautioned allies against using network equipment made by Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers, including ZTE.

The warnings seem to have proven effective – in 2018, New Zealand, Australia and Japan all announced that they would block operators from choosing Huawei equipment for their 5G rollouts, while the UK’s British Telecom recently announced that it would remove Huawei equipment from its networks – allegedly following warnings from the country’s intelligence services.

US security concerns over Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers focus around a relatively recent law stipulating that Chinese companies and individuals must cooperate with the country’s authorities upon request. Given that the Communist Party of China is well known for restricting access to Internet content and screening communications between Chinese citizens, it is understandable that such a law could cause concern in the context of international espionage.

However, there is virtually no concrete evidence to suggest that Huawei has engaged in any such activity. Earlier this month, the vendor’s founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei held his first press briefing in many years in the wake of the recent arrest of Meng, who is also his daughter.

Speaking about the cooperation law, he stated: “I support the CPC, but I would never do anything to harm another country or another individual”, and added that Huawei had never been asked to supply a customer’s data to the CPC, saying “we would definitely say no to any such request.”

Ren is a former engineer with the People’s Liberation Army, which has been the root of much US suspicion of Huawei. Indeed, documents revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that in 2010, the NSA covertly broke into Huawei’s head office in an attempt to prove that Ren was still a PLA member, and that the vendor was therefore under the control of the Chinese army.

The New York Times notes that the other goal of this operation was to identify any backdoors in Huawei’s equipment, allowing the NSA to run surveillance and indeed hostile operations in the event that the vendor sold network equipment to enemies of the US. The fact that it proved unsuccessful in this endeavour appears to remain the basis for many of its security fears.

Since this incident, the US has cooperated with the UK to continue searching for backdoors in Huawei’s source code and discovered a function that would allow the vendor to access and control some of its networks remotely from its Shenzhen offices. However, it appears to be a software feature – the function is not hidden and apparently not malicious, and appears to exist as a remote diagnostics and update tool.

Nonetheless, there were situations in which the feature enabled data to circumvent data centres, and this was seized upon as evidence that Huawei equipment could be used for cybercrimes or espionage.

Recent news that a Huawei executive was arrested on espionage charges in Poland has done little to quell concerns. The company immediately sacked Wang Weijing, who was apprehended together with Polish former intelligence official Piotr Durbajlo on suspicion of working for Chinese intelligence agencies. Huawei stated that his activities had no connection to the company, and said Wang had brought their name into “disrepute”.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Zhang Ming – the Chinese envoy to the European Union – claimed that a “security story” was being spun around Huawei in an attempt to stoke fear against Chinese network equipment. Zhang warned that issuing official bans against the use of Huawei equipment could be detrimental to global cooperation - scientifically and economically, as well as in terms of 5G deployment.

Huawei has displayed a willingness to work with authorities to demonstrate that its equipment does not present any security risks, and it has expressed that it is open to amending its business practices in order to avoid being frozen out of the UK market, which is an important foothold for it in Western Europe.

Vodafone Group – headquartered in the UK – last week stated that it would suspend deployment of Huawei equipment in its European core networks, but the group’s CEO Nick Read appeared to defend Huawei by stating that banning the vendor’s equipment would impede the flow of 5G deployment in Europe, as well as increasing the costs.

It is clear that the US is unwilling to cede its technological lead to Huawei in the 5G era, but equally it is demonstrable that operators consider Huawei’s equipment to be essential going forward. While there are grounds for concerns that Chinese equipment could be used for espionage, there is little evidence that this is the case.

Moreover, the US has expressed a readiness to exploit backdoors in Huawei’s equipment for its own purposes, but it has been unable to locate any. Does this suggest that they do not exist, or merely that they are difficult to find? And what does it infer about the level of access that the US enjoys to equipment manufactured by Western vendors? As we roll inexorably towards the 5G era, these questions will only become more pertinent.

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