Huawei security guards line-up at the end of their workday at the new sprawling ’Ox Horn’ Research and Development campus in Dongguan, near Shenzhen, China.

Don­ald Trump, 5G data, Chi­nese intel­li­gence: what exact­ly is going on at Huawei?

Banned in the USA and under investigation by The Five Eyes – the scandal at Huawei is exposing deep-rooted suspicions between East and West.

There seems to be a lot going on with Huawei…

Yep. Many major west­ern pow­ers are wran­gling over whether the Chi­nese tele­com giant should be used to pro­vide net­work equip­ment which will sup­port the roll­out of broad­band game-chang­er 5G – the fifth gen­er­a­tion of mobile inter­net set to make such phe­nom­e­na as autonomous cars and smart cities a reality. 

And in the mean­time, the company’s CFO and eldest daugh­ter of Huawei’s founder, Meng Wanzhou, has been arrest­ed in Cana­da on charges of com­mit­ting and con­spir­ing to com­mit bank and wire fraud. The UK for­mer defence sec­re­tary Gavin Williamson, lost his job after alleged­ly leak­ing infor­ma­tion from a meet­ing of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil where they dis­cussed Huawei (some­thing he strong­ly denies). And the Five Eyes – an inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence agency made up of some of the world’s biggest pow­ers (includ­ing the UK) – are deeply divid­ed on whether they should be allowed to be part of west­ern networks.

Should they?

Well accord­ing to them, Huawei is a lead­ing glob­al infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy solu­tions provider’. (Catchy).

They’re the world’s largest tele­com equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­er and the sec­ond largest mak­er of smart­phones. They’re a mas­sive glob­al com­pa­ny with near­ly 200,000 employ­ees, oper­at­ing in 170 coun­tries and dis­tricts and serv­ing around three bil­lion peo­ple. They’re also one of only three major com­pa­nies in the world who can pro­vide the ser­vices and goods need­ed for 5G roll-out. So in the­o­ry, yes. 

In prac­tice, it’s a lot more complicated.

How so?

In 2017, Chi­na issued a Nation­al Intel­li­gence Law oblig­ing all organ­i­sa­tions to co-oper­ate with state intel­li­gence work on demand. This means that, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, Huawei could be forced – by law – to pro­vide the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment with infor­ma­tion should they require it.

Accord­ing to the US this means they are com­pro­mised. If used to deliv­er 5G to the west they could be forced by the Chi­nese author­i­ties to hand over data and pro­vide hid­den back­doors to west­ern net­works enabling Chi­na to spy on west­ern nations.

Workers are seen on the production line at Huawei’s production campus on in Dongguan, near Shenzhen, China.

That doesn’t sound good… 

No, it doesn’t. But all of this is strong­ly con­test­ed by Huawei. They issued a 37-page legal doc­u­ment to the US Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion detail­ing why. The bot­tom line of their argu­ment is: Huawei’s sub­sidiaries and employ­ees out­side of Chi­na are not sub­ject to the ter­ri­to­r­i­al juris­dic­tion of the Nation­al Intel­li­gence Law”.

Huawei argues that they are a pri­vate com­pa­ny, nei­ther con­trolled nor influ­enced by the Chi­nese government. 

But then why would the US make such a big deal out of it?

Some argue that the US is using Huawei as a bar­gain­ing chip to secure its trade deal with Chi­na. The US feels threat­ened and so are try­ing to pre­vent what Huawei has called fair com­pe­ti­tion’ in the tech­no­log­i­cal sphere. 

Right. But I thought I read some­thing quite damn­ing in The Times recently?

Back in April, the news­pa­per ran an arti­cle claim­ing that the Amer­i­can secret intel­li­gence ser­vice – the CIA, has rea­son to believe that Huawei has received fund­ing from Chi­nese state intel­li­gence ser­vices includ­ing the People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA), China’s Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Com­mis­sion and a third branch. As The Times piece explained: After US agen­cies tracked the fund­ing for Huawei, Wash­ing­ton decid­ed that it was too risky to do busi­ness with the com­pa­ny, the source said.” 

Very damn­ing!

Well, as the com­pa­ny said: Huawei does not com­ment on unsub­stan­ti­at­ed alle­ga­tions backed up by zero evi­dence from anony­mous sources.”

And that’s the heart of the issue. No evi­dence has ever been found to sup­port alle­ga­tions that Huawei has par­tic­i­pat­ed in sub­terfuge. And the alle­ga­tions have been inves­ti­gat­ed. A lot. 

Who’re The Five Eyes? 

The Five Eyes are an intel­li­gence alliance, made up of the US, the UK, Cana­da, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. And even they are split on the mat­ter. The US is attempt­ing to strong-arm the oth­ers into boy­cotting the Chi­nese firm. 

Who has actu­al­ly banned Huawei?

First up, the USA. On 15th May 2019, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump issued a nation­al secu­ri­ty order which effec­tive­ly banned US com­pa­nies from using tele­coms equip­ment which pos­es an unac­cept­able risk to the nation­al secu­ri­ty of the Unit­ed States’. No names were men­tioned – how­ev­er lat­er that day, the Com­merce Depart­ment announced Huawei had been one of the com­pa­nies added to its Enti­ty List’, for­bid­ding US com­pa­nies from con­duct­ing busi­ness with it with­out a gov­ern­ment waiver. 

But the sto­ry is ever chang­ing. Just yes­ter­day US Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wilbur Ross made an announce­ment dur­ing a depart­ment con­fer­ence that US com­pa­nies who want to sup­ply Huawei will be allowed to be apply for a licence to do so but that licences will only be grant­ed if, as TechCrunch report­ed, they can demon­strate that the tech­nol­o­gy they sell to Huawei will not put nation­al secu­ri­ty at risk.” In prac­tice, the com­pa­ny remains blacklisted. 

A member of Huawei’s reception staff arranges the chairs in a private dining room a building used for high profile customer visits at the company's Bantian campus in Shenzhen, China.

So that’s why peo­ple with Huawei phones can’t use their apps?

Pret­ty much. Google, as a US-based com­pa­ny, can­not pro­vide goods and ser­vices to Huawei, and so in May announced that they would be block­ing Huawei’s access to the Android soft­ware that it needs to run.

OK, any­one else?

Yes, then there’s Aus­tralia. They banned mobile car­ri­ers from using Huawei to build 5G net­works last August. In a state­ment, the Gov­ern­ment explained how tele­com oper­a­tors had tra­di­tion­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed net­work equip­ment into two net­works: core’ and edge’. The for­mer deals with the most sen­si­tive func­tions, like authen­ti­ca­tion and billing, whilst the lat­ter deals with the equip­ment cap­tur­ing radio sig­nals (like anten­nae) enabling user prod­ucts – e.g. hand­sets – to wire­less­ly con­nect to the core.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, there was a clear divide between the two. With 5G, they will move clos­er togeth­er – or so the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment allege. They say this pos­es a secu­ri­ty risk, pro­vid­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to cir­cum­vent tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty con­trols by exploit­ing equip­ment in the edge of the net­work’. In a care­ful­ly word­ed con­clu­sion, they sur­mised that the involve­ment of ven­dors who are like­ly to be sub­ject to extra­ju­di­cial direc­tions from a for­eign gov­ern­ment’ – no names men­tioned, of course – con­flict with Aus­tralian law and could pre­vent the prop­er pro­tec­tion of a 5G network.

New Zealand is still assess­ing the risks posed by Huawei, and have banned net­works from using it until they reach a deci­sion. And Cana­da has yet to decide one way or the other.

And the UK?

The UK doesn’t agree with a ban. Whilst the gen­er­al con­sen­sus is no’ to using Huawei for core net­works – and gov­ern­ment ones too – some experts believe there is only small risk in using its radio access net­work equipment.

Why would we take any risk at all?

Well, there aren’t many com­pa­nies sell­ing the type of gear required to facil­i­tate 5G. Oth­er than Huawei, the main con­tenders are Eric­s­son and Nokia. Since the safest net­works are built using mul­ti­ple sup­pli­ers – to pre­vent one ven­dor-spe­cif­ic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty’ bring­ing down the entire net­work – by shun­ning Huawei, you are reduc­ing your sup­pli­er list and arguably mak­ing the result­ing net­work less depend­able and robust any­way. Huawei’s equip­ment is also con­sid­ered of bet­ter qual­i­ty than that of its rivals, plus it’s cheaper.

Beyond that, experts argue there is no need for the bound­aries between core and edge net­works to blur, as long as they are upheld by mobile net­works. Plus, cyber attacks have his­tor­i­cal­ly occurred on account of flaws in soft­ware cod­ing, which come down to plain, old human error and could affect any tele­coms company.

Huawei employees sleep at their cubicle during their lunch break, which is known to be common practice in many workplaces in China, at the research and development area in the Bantian campus in Shenzhen, China.

I thought the UK had already agreed Huawei will be used to facil­i­tate 5G networks?

Where did you hear that?

A lit­tle bird told us…

Oh. You mean that Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil leak. The one blamed on for­mer defence sec­re­tary Gavin Williamson – bet­ter known as The Man Who Once Told Rus­sia To Go Away And Shut Up’. He was sacked. And regard­ing the UK’s deci­sion, noth­ing has been finalised.

So basi­cal­ly, no one agrees? 

Exact­ly. And this lack of con­sen­sus has cre­at­ed fric­tion between the Eyes. It would be very dif­fi­cult for the Unit­ed States to share infor­ma­tion the way that we have in the past if we are hav­ing to rely on unse­cured net­works,” US State Department’s Ambas­sador Robert Stray­er told the BBC.

And what’s all that stuff about the CFO get­ting arrest­ed? Seems dodgy…

Yeah, it does a bit. Meng Wanzhou, Ren Zhengfei’s eldest daugh­ter, is Huawei’s CFO. She was arrest­ed in Cana­da in Decem­ber last year, on the request of the US gov­ern­ment, for alleged­ly vio­lat­ing US trade sanc­tions on Iran. 

She is charged with com­mit­ting, and con­spir­ing to com­mit, bank and wire fraud. She is accused of mis­lead­ing banks between 2009 and 2014 over Huawei’s rela­tion­ship with Sky­com – a pur­port­ed unof­fi­cial sub­sidiary’ of Huawei, con­duct­ing busi­ness in Iran – in order to acquire their services. 

She is cur­rent­ly under house arrest, bat­tling extra­di­tion to the US. Her hear­ing has been set for 20th Jan­u­ary 2020.

So what is Huawei doing to make itself look less, well, dodgy?

Huawei says they are very trans­par­ent. In 2010, they even set up an office in Oxford­shire specif­i­cal­ly tasked with look­ing into secu­ri­ty risks their own com­pa­ny may pose to the UK. It’s called the Huawei Cyber Secu­ri­ty Eval­u­a­tion Centre.

Isn’t it known as The Cell’?

A bit Hol­ly­wood sci-fi, but yes. The work con­duct­ed in it is over­seen by GCHQ, the Cab­i­net Office and the Home Office, which should make its find­ings pret­ty trust­wor­thy. Only their staff are par­tial­ly made up of Huawei employ­ees, which some say presents a con­flict of interest.

To keep it in check, The Cell’s oper­a­tion is annu­al­ly assessed by an Over­sight Board. Their most recent audit found the organisation’s abil­i­ty to oper­ate inde­pen­dent­ly of Huawei HQ pro­duced no high or medi­um pri­or­i­ty findings’. 

How­ev­er…

It also stat­ed sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal issues’ had been iden­ti­fied in Huawei’s engi­neer­ing process­es. Whilst it empha­sised it didn’t believe these were on account of Chi­nese state inter­fer­ence – say­ing instead they were the result of bad engi­neer­ing and cyber­se­cu­ri­ty hygiene’, which can be man­aged – the annu­al report con­clud­ed only lim­it­ed assur­ance’ could be pro­vid­ed that all risks posed to the UK’s nation­al secu­ri­ty, on account of Huawei’s involve­ment in its crit­i­cal net­works’, could be suf­fi­cient­ly mit­i­gat­ed long-term’. 

What’s The Cell like?

Can’t get passed that Hol­ly­wood image? Sor­ry to dis­ap­point but it’s just a hum­drum office block’ accord­ing to this report – though, one where vis­i­tors have to leave their phones at the door on arrival.

Ok, well, what about that new Huawei cam­pus in Chi­na? Isn’t that a theme park?!

No. But it is kind of extra­or­di­nary. Huawei’s HQ in the south­east­ern Chi­nese region of Shen­zhen has recent­ly been expand­ed to include an out­er city cam­pus, which is made up of a num­ber of repli­ca Euro­pean cities. Paris and Verona in Chi­na? Sure.

Home to 30,000 employ­ees, the cam­pus con­sists of build­ings designed in Euro­pean style. Why? Appar­ent­ly, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei is a fan of clas­si­cal archi­tec­ture.

So, in sum­ma­ry, what’s going to happen?

Hard to say. It’s pos­si­ble Britain will use Huawei gear for parts of its edge net­works – but it’s just as pos­si­ble it won’t. The US could do a u-turn on Huawei entire­ly, in order to nego­ti­ate a bet­ter trade deal with Chi­na – that’s a pos­si­bil­i­ty, too.

As Pres­i­dent Trump con­fus­ing­ly said at a press con­fer­ence in May: Huawei is some­thing that’s very dan­ger­ous. You look at what they’ve done from a secu­ri­ty stand­point, from a mil­i­tary stand­point, it’s very dan­ger­ous. So, it’s pos­si­ble that Huawei even would be includ­ed in some kind of a trade deal. If we made a deal, I could imag­ine Huawei being pos­si­bly includ­ed in some form, some part of a trade deal.”

With this par­tic­u­lar US Pres­i­dent, any­thing is pos­si­ble. Best sit tight and watch this space.


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