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Monday, September 28, 2020
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Huawei wars: The patriots strike back

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HERE’S a ridiculous policy contradiction for you: the British government admits that Huawei is a ‘high-risk vendor’, that high-risk vendors should not be involved in British communications, but says that Huawei should continue, indefinitely, to establish Britain’s 5G network. 

Credit to the 30 backbench MPs who forced the government into this surprise admission on Wednesday. They had called on the government to answer for its policy. This was not a debate on the floor of the House of Commons, but was public and on the record, and carries the same weight: the government’s responses are statements of policy.

It was a surprise, even though the government has been climbing down a little, given blowback from foreign allies and domestic backbenchers. Last month Boris Johnson’s administration said it would cap Huawei’s market share in 5G at 35 per cent.

However, think about how meaningless this proportion is. Why 35 per cent? Why not 45 per cent? Why not 25 per cent? Can you protect your home by leaving the front door open but closing the doors between rooms?

Johnson’s administration claimed that it would keep Huawei out of the ‘core’ infrastructure, but there is no core: the infrastructure is seamless to whomever supplies the hardware.

Hardware can be built with provisions for surveillance that are undiscoverable without expert, destructive investigation. Your ‘anti-virus’ software doesn’t even know what hardware it’s on. In any country, vendors are required by law to build into the infrastructure ways for law enforcers to collect intelligence on criminal communications. The vendors themselves are not allowed to use those backdoors. Yet US intelligence shows that Huawei has been using those backdoors for more than a decade. 

You don’t need to trust this US intelligence, which was revealed only last month after years of hiding for fear of tipping off the Chinese to US collection capabilities. Huawei’s misuse of the backdoors emerged years ago through private investigation. For instance, Huawei supplied hardware to Vodafone from 2009 to 2011 with unadmitted backdoors that allowed Huawei unauthorised access to the carrier’s fixed-line network in Italy. Vodafone asked Huawei to remove the backdoors; Huawei claimed the backdoors were accidents, but the backdoors weren’t fixed the next time Vodafone checked.

In January 2017 the African Union discovered that the Huawei servers in its Chinese-built and -funded headquarters had been transferring data to China every night since the HQ was opened in 2012. Upon discovery, the AU purchased replacement servers, installed encryption, and terminated its contract with Ethiopia’s state-owned service provider, which continued to use Chinese hardware. Nevertheless, Chinese aid, trade and diplomacy eventually triumphed again. In June 2019, the AU and Huawei agreed to expand their relationship to 5G and artificial intelligence, and to increase Huawei’s training of AU staff. 

Britain has been privy to the US intelligence all along, and has accumulated its own intelligence on Huawei’s impropriety within British borders. Our communications security agency (GCHQ) reports every year that Huawei has failed to remedy British discoveries of security flaws in its products. 

The correct market share for a bad actor is zero. If you let any Chinese vendor into your communications hardware, you are letting in the Chinese state. Chinese companies exist at the pleasure of the national government, and are obliged by Chinese law to co-operate with Chinese intelligence agencies. In June 2019, Huawei’s global cyber-security and privacy officer told Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee that Huawei obeyed the laws of the countries in which it operates. By implication, then, Huawei obeys Chinese laws obliging co-operation in espionage! Although he refused to confirm these particular laws, he confirmed that Huawei’s chairwoman (Sun Yafang) previously worked for China’s spy agency. 

You might hear the silly argument that ‘everybody spies’, but not everybody is equal. China is not an ally, a democracy, or judicially free and fair. An American vendor is subject to strict domestic controls on privacy and information security, whose penalties could put the largest company out of business. An American official is subject to criminal judicial restrictions on access to private information, whose penalties could put him/her in prison for life. And America is our ally. China is not.

The British government has got itself into this ludicrous contradiction because it has prioritised the progressive dogma of ‘openness’, particularly towards China, particularly against the West. The dogma goes all the way back to Tony Blair’s administration, which permitted Huawei in the first place.

Three Conservative premiers have been in on it. In 2011, David Cameron allowed Sir Andrew Cahn to resign from UK Trade & Investment, the government department that promotes exports and attracts foreign direct investment, to chair Huawei’s new British advisory board. A few months later, Cameron allowed the government’s chief information security officer, John Suffolk, to join Huawei as its global cyber security & privacy officer (This is the same man who as a civil servant opened the government-Huawei security centre at Banbury. It was supposed to vet Huawei’s products for security, but mostly assigns Huawei’s employees to pass Huawei’s products.)

In 2015, Huawei appointed to head its UK board Lord Browne, the former chair of BP who was ennobled by Tony Blair and served David Cameron too. At the same time, it raised Dame Helen Alexander, formerly leader of the Economist Group and the Confederation of British Industry. 

When Cameron left office in 2016, he set up a Chinese investment fund. Since 2018, after a mandatory time out, he has personally lobbied the government on its behalf. 

On 23 April 2019, Theresa May cast the deciding vote in the National Security Council in favour of allowing Huawei to take part in Britain’s 5G. Trembling Theresa has gone, thank the heavens, but her civil service lives on. May had appointed Mark Sedwill successively as national security adviser, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service: he still holds all appointments simultaneously. At May’s direction, he led missions to China with the 15 permanent secretaries (the highest-ranking civil servants from the ministries/departments). It was Sedwill who led the investigation into Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s supposed leak of May’s deciding vote, while he himself leaked Williamson’s texts. It was Sedwill alone who recommended to May that Williamson should be fired. And Sedwill got this power in the middle of a dispute with Williamson about whether the unelected national security adviser or the elected Defence Secretary should lead Britain’s national security. 

The civil servants are the unelected tail wagging the elected dog.  When Boris Johnson became PM in July 2019, he put the Huawei decision under review. However, without a majority in Parliament, he balked at picking too many fights. In October, his administration indicated that it would permit Huawei fully into 5G. Yet, within weeks, given the impasse over Brexit, it pushed for a general election campaign, and deferred any decision on Huawei’s access until after the election. I wrote at the time: ‘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.’ Yes, that is what happened. In January 2020, Johnson’s administration confirmed Huawei’s involvement in 5G. Then the government insulted our intelligence by characterising Huawei’s near-monopoly from 2G to 5G as diversification and competition, and by pretending that the decision would not affect Western intelligence sharing, even though the US and Australia had already said it would.

Last month we learned that Huawei has corrupted academia too. It funded a study by Cambridge University to recommend reforms of the international governance of telecoms in favour of China and particularly Huawei. One naïve statement is worth quoting: ‘To stimulate competitors, all intellectual property associated with 5G has been made freely available by the CEO of Huawei, making this a fruitful time to be a European technology company working on these issues.’ 

This is hogwash, and you don’t need to take my word for it. Huawei’s Western competitors have been held back by European bias towards Huawei. The leading telecoms company in Britain is BT, whose subsidiary EE launched 5G here in May 2019 with Huawei hardware. The second company to launch 5G in Britain was Vodafone, in July 2019. The third was the appropriately named Three, owned by Hutchison, in August. Both Vodafone and Three suspended orders of Huawei 5G phones due to backdoors, and thus were delayed. Other vendors aren’t even running in Britain: Ericsson is a Swedish vendor; Nokia is Finnish; Samsung is South Korean, and the other biggies are American. All are available, but Huawei was favoured. The British government’s pretence that this choice is good for competition is at best dishonest and at worst corrupt.

We can thank a handful of patriotic backbenchers for forcing the government to admit its contradictory position. These backbenchers cross parties, ideologies and Brexit. They include former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, the Tory leadership contender whom the Parliamentary party rejected in favour of David Cameron, Owen Paterson, another arch-Brexiteer, Damian Green, an arch-Remainer in need of rehabilitation, and Tobias Ellwood, a Red Tory and chairman of the Defence Select Committee. Bob Seely illustrates the appeal to Left-wingers by raising concerns about Huawei’s use of China’s Uighur minority as slave labour. 

If the government thought that it would placate these rebels, it is wrong. It sent a junior minister, Matt Warman, alone to meet them this week. Warman revealed that the government wants to remove high-risk vendors eventually, but has no schedule, which sounds a lot like an admission that the situation is wrong without a promise to change it. The rebels told journalists on the same day that they were unpersuaded and that they would continue to put the issue to a vote in the House of Commons. 

Good luck to them: they are among the few patriots left in Parliament. They are fighting an unpatriotic government in dire need of a purge.

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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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