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Banning Huawei from 5G: Politics or Prudence?

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In early May of this year, representatives from 30 countries met in Prague to develop a proposal for a common set of 5G security guidelines. Although the resulting report was legally non-binding, the most significant output of the meeting was a strong recommendation that governments avoid deployment of 5G network technology from nations that don’t meet certain standards. Specifically, the proposal states among its policy recommendations:

“The overall risk of influence on a supplier by a third country should be taken into account, notably in relation to its model of governance, the absence of cooperation agreements on security, or similar arrangements, such as adequacy decisions, as regards data protection, or whether this country is a party to multilateral, international or bilateral agreements on cybersecurity, the fight against cybercrime, or data protection.”

Although not mentioned by name in the proposal, the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei seems to be the chief inspiration for the meeting – and for the above warning in particular. Before the Prague proposals, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Taiwan had already banned Huawei technology from their 5G networks, exacerbating an already contentious trade war between the US and China.

So why all the fuss over Huawei? Is this just a case of global politics-as-usual or a response to legitimate concerns?

Who is Huawei?

The Huawei corporation – based in Shenzhen, China – is over 30 years old and is the leading global manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. Their main business activities are centered around telecommunications networking equipment and services as well as consumer mobile electronics (mainly wireless modems and mobile phones). Huawei’s founder is Chinese electronics engineer and entrepreneur Ren Zhengfei who serves on the Board of Directors, but the company is currently run by a set of three rotating CEO’s.

Huawei is also by far leading the world in the deployment of 5G networking equipment and services, as it is in the process of implementing 5G in both Russia and its native China.

A history of suspicious practices

The US has banned Huawei from its 5G networks and from any government contracts due to concerns that they could spy on communications on behalf of the Chinese government. These concerns stem from several incidents involving Chinese companies, including Huawei, as well as the close relationship between the Chinese government and Chinese-based companies.

European telecom carrier Vodaphone discovered vulnerabilities in its Italian internet routers, among other equipment, in 2011. The router software, provided by Huawei, was found to have hidden “backdoors” embedded in its code which are intended for developer management but could allow attackers access. Huawei removed the backdoors at Vodafone’s request.

Huawei has also been the subject of allegations of corporate espionage and other crimes. Huawei personnel have faced accusations of stealing intellectual property from US companies Cisco Systems and T-Mobile. Ren’s daughter Meng Wanzhou, CFO and board chair of Huawei, was arrested last December in Canada at the request of the US for theft of trade secrets and for violating US sanctions on Iran.

Former Canadian telecom firm Nortel Networks says it was hacked by the Chinese government – which it says stole valuable propriety information – over the course of a decade. Nortel claims the intrusion benefited Chinese competitor Huawei and contributed to the 2009 bankruptcy of Nortel.

Teresa May, Trump, and the trade war

China remains an exclusively communist regime and Chinese law mandates that companies collect information on behalf of its intelligence agencies when asked to do so. Huawei’s Ren insists, however, that no such demands have been made of the company and that they could not be compelled to install backdoors on equipment distributed abroad.

Meanwhile, China continues to lead the charge on 5G, and the world is dividing into two opposing camps on the issue of Chinese 5G technology. Strong US allies like Britain are still in limbo as to how much of a role, if any, Huawei will play in building their 5G networks. Issues of trade and global politics have thus wriggled their way into the 5G conversation.

US President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton have been urging the British government to limit Huawei’s involvement in their 5G network due to the nature of the intelligence-sharing relationship between the two nations. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent announcement of her pending resignation has further clouded the situation as the UK awaits its new PM.

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