Saturday, October 31, 2020
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Digital security? We may as well hand it to thieves

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IMAGINE that burglars gain a monopoly on all key-cutting services. Imagine if your bank decided to put the security of your money in the hands of bank robbers.

Now imagine that your local authority hands all responsibility for the maintenance of road bridges to a company whose bridges keep collapsing. Finally, imagine that the Post Office keeps re-hiring the postman who steals the contents of your letters.

Analogously, this is what your service providers and governments are doing by going back to Huawei for digital infrastructure, despite those same service providers and governments learning over and over again that Huawei’s digital infrastructure is not secure. 

Now consider that this issue is not part of the current general election campaign. Why do the twice-fooled keep going back for more? For one thing, Huawei’s offerings are the cheapest. For another, China’s government insists on bundling Huawei’s privileges into international trade deals.

Finally, a few people with influence on everybody’s security keep putting personal gain before public good: Huawei is expert at hiring the public servants who once oversaw the Government’s cyber security and the commercial sector’s monopolies. 

The structure of information dominance and thence international hegemony for decades to come is being decided in the space of a few years. This is because digital communications are undergoing a step-change, with the implementation of 5G (fifth-generation wireless communication), which offers speeds 2,000 times faster than current 4G. (Early reports of 100 times faster, although staggering at the time, now seem ancient history.)

Such speeds allow for every appliance, vehicle, and machine to be connected wirelessly. The benefits to commerce, household management and entertainment will be considerable, but so will the benefits to spies and thieves.

Wireless communication is still a recent experience compared to other forms of communication. Most people are waking up to the insecurities just as they are overtaken by a fifth generation, whose capacity is difficult to conceptualise. By official estimates, Chinese espionage in the US costs Americans hundreds of billions of dollars – again, these numbers are difficult to conceptualise.

Wireless access just makes espionage easier. Espionage is theft. It can be used for commercial gain or diplomatic gain. For China, commercial espionage and diplomatic espionage are one and the same. Huawei is nominally a private company, but, like all Chinese companies, thrives with the connivance of the national government and is obliged by Chinese law to co-operate with the Chinese state in intelligence.

Huawei has a relationship with every telecoms provider in Europe, Asia, and Africa, leaving Australasia and the Americas as relative sceptics, although plenty of providers are penetrated there too.

The American conservative Newt Gingrich warned that ‘dominating the wireless world will be tantamount to dominating the world’. Such a statement is self-evidently true, but is too easily compartmentalised on partisan grounds.

Policies these days, like facts, are victims of the wider conservative-progressive split of our times. Progressives still cling to the fanciful theory that everything would be right in the world if only information was free. Information is the key to enlightenment, according to progressives. Informed people are liberals, they claim. Conservatives are ignorant, they claim.

Ergo, conservatives are racists and xenophobes, so Western opposition to Huawei must be prejudicial. The triumph of this thinking helps to explain the repeated rehabilitation of Huawei, and the unwillingness of politicians to raise the issue at election time.

Huawei has ridden a rollercoaster in 2019 and still not been thrown from the car. In January, the US government indicted Huawei for espionage, wire fraud, evading sanctions, and obstruction of justice. 

In May, President Trump issued an executive order blocking Huawei from operating in America. Then the US government banned US suppliers from exporting to Huawei without government approval. 

The US warned its allies, particularly Britain, that it would curtail its sharing of intelligence and sensitive technologies with countries open to Huawei. Nevertheless, in April, Theresa May cast the deciding vote in the National Security Council in favour of allowing Huawei to take part in Britain’s 5G. She smeared and fired dissenters (e.g., Gavin Williamson, then Defence Secretary) and sided with Huawei’s British lobbyists (including former civil servants). 

In May, the African Union agreed for Huawei to provide 5G, despite discovering in 2017 that the AU’s Chinese-built HQ had been automatically sending digital information to China every night since the HQ opened in 2012.

Even US containment is unravelling. The US Commerce Department now argues (perversely) that Americans should be free to export technologies to Huawei that foreigners can freely export. Thus, it is granting permanent waivers on current export controls to companies judged worthy upon petition. Naturally, this liberalisation is publicly tied up with aspirations for a better trading relationship within China. 

What is to be done? One American idea is to prohibit any American from doing business with Huawei and to withhold aid, intelligence and favoured-trading status from countries that do not prohibit their own citizens from doing business with Huawei. The explicit targets are Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which are big suppliers to China and also have large trade surpluses with America.

Under the same policy, Britain too would be excluded from American aid, intelligence and trading privileges. Practically, Britain is fully open to Huawei, despite the fig leaf of the ‘Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre.’ The Government even allows Huawei to participate in the Government’s own infrastructure.

Yet this great security and diplomatic issue of our times does not feature in the current general election campaign. Late in October, the current Conservative government indicated that it would permit Huawei fully into 5G infrastructure. Yet a few days into a general election campaign, it deferred any decision on Huawei’s access until after the election. 

Given precedents, you can bet that after the election the Government (under whichever party) will quietly re-confirm Huawei’s access, too late for democracy to have its say.

All the parliamentary parties, even the (nominally) Conservative Party, follow a progressive policy on openness to China in all things, to the endangerment of national security, the special relationship and your privacy.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism. He is @riskyscientistson Parler.

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