UK Buckles, Joins The Evidence-Optional Huawei Blacklist Party
from the do-as-we-say,-not-as-we-do dept
While there’s really no denying that Chinese smartphone and network gear maker Huawei engages in some clearly sketchy behavior, it’s generally not anything that can’t be matched by our own, home-grown sketchy telecom companies. And while the Trump administration has been engaged in a widespread effort to blackball Huawei gear from the global marketplace based predominantly on allegations of spying on Americans (mostly to gain leverage in what’s largely seen as a counterproductive tariff and trade war), nobody’s been able to provide a shred of public evidence that this actually occurs despite 20 years of pearl clutching.
That’s not to say that Huawei doesn’t pose national security risks. But for an argument that’s been making the rounds for the better part of the last decade (including one 18 month White House investigation that found nothing), there’s a surprising lack of hard evidence of actual spying on Americans when you actually go looking for it. And there are surprisingly few people that actually seem to care.
With that in mind, Germany and the UK (including UK intelligence services) initially balked at the Trump administration push, noting that if there were security issues with Huawei gear, they’d be caught by existing hardware security review processes. The concern is that a global blackballing — including pulling Huawei gear out of existing networks — would be cumbersome, costly, ineffective, and create potential new problems. And given that Chinese hardware is literally in everything from your home router to the litany of feebly secured “IOT” devices attached to your home and business networks — potentially futile.
This week however the UK finally buckled to U.S. requests, and announced that it would be (slowly) implementing a ban on Huawei gear in both 5G and fixed fiber networks:
“The British government said it would bar telecom companies from purchasing new equipment made by China?s Huawei Technologies Co. and gave them until 2027 to remove its technology from their 5G networks, a sharp about-face that marks a significant victory for the U.S….The U.K is also launching a consultation on when to ban the purchase of Huawei equipment for the country?s fiber-optic network. This will be followed by a transition period that isn?t expected to exceed two years.”
The ban is expected to delay development of 5G by roughly two to three years and cost up to ?2 billion ($2.5 billion) to complete. The move leaves Canada as the last country in the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance ? which includes the U.S., UK, Australia and New Zealand ? that has yet to decide whether Huawei equipment can be used in their domestic 5G networks.
Huawei, not surprisingly, wasn’t particularly happy about the news:
“It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide,” said Ed Brewster, a spokesperson for Huawei UK. “Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized, this is about US trade policy and not security.”
Smaller telecom operators in the US and abroad also haven’t been particularly happy about the entire effort, repeatedly noting that they’re being asked to foot much of the bill for Huawei gear removal and replacement with what’s usually more expensive hardware. While the UK has now folded to the Trump administration’s efforts, Germany and much of the EU remain resistant to the idea of a wholesale ban, would rather exclude Huawei gear based on existing security review standards, and are likely waiting out the next US election to avoid policies that could turn on a dime, which to me, seems more sensible.
Again, there’s ample evidence that Huawei and the Chinese government engage in sketchy behavior. That’s not really debatable. The problem with a telecom-network specific ban for alleged spying is it doesn’t actually solve the problem and imposes all manner of new additional hurdles and costs. Yes, Huawei won’t be in the UK’s telecom networks, but Chinese gear is literally everywhere, from the hardware being used to build power plants, to the millions Chinese routers, internet of things and other “smart” fridges, TVs, door locks, and Barbie dolls (usually with paper mache grade security) we attach to our home and business networks with reckless abandon:
Post-Huawei, Chinese companies will still be supplying equipment used in UK critical infrastructure, building a UK nuclear power station, and selling huge quantities of manufactured goods.
So framing Huawei about broader security or human rights concerns doesn?t really hold up.
— James Ball (@jamesrbuk) July 14, 2020
Then there’s the whole hypocrisy thing. The “five eyes” gang has been engaging in often illegal global surveillance of foreign countries (including satellite signal interception and undersea cable wiretapping) for the better part of several generations, starting with programs like Echelon. The US, with the aid of telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon, has been spying on every shred of data that touches their networks for almost as long. That’s before you even get to the fact that the US hacked into Huawei to implant backdoors, and the NSA has been caught intercepting network hardware to install tracking technology.
Is illegal spying bad or not? If it is, surely we’d be OK with other countries banning AT&T, given it’s been made repeatedly clear the company is effectively bone-grafted to the NSA? And if we are going to be doling out lectures on what does or doesn’t qualify as illegal surveillance, shouldn’t we at least make a fleeting attempt to lead by example?
Again, none of this is to defend China’s abhorrent behavior or the genuine risks Chinese telecom companies might actually pose. But you’re not going to fix the problem with completely non-transparent allegations, myopic solutions that don’t tackle broader security issues (like the IOT), nonsensical trade wars (the cost of which are usually borne by American consumers), lobbyists eager to bury anti-competitive business interests under the guise of natsec, and bigoted and patriotic bluster.