UK Calls Bull On Five Eyes Huawei Ban

As the UK refuses to jump blindly onboard the Huawei ban train, PAT PILCHER asks what it means for other Five Eyes countries which have been quick to club against the Chinese vendor.

It may be old news that Five Eyes intelligence agencies have clubbed together to ban Huawei’s network gear from upcoming 5G mobile network builds, but in an amusing twist, news out of the UK could see the ban crumbling.

It appears that the United States’ staunchest ally, the UK, is not all that convinced that Huawei really poses any threat. The British National Cyber Security Centre is saying that risks can be mitigated by using a variety of suppliers (which any self respecting telco would do anyhow) and restricting which parts of mobile networks Huawei gear can be used in is probably enough to neutralise any theoretical threats posed by the company or the nation that owns it.

The timing of the UK’s announcement must be particularly galling for western nations, including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which have all adopted a tough stance against telcos using Huawei network equipment.

The news came after Sir Alex Younger, the UK’s MI6 chief, said an outright ban might not be needed. While this is good news for Huawei, things are unlikely to move very fast. Indications are that the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre is still figuring out what their options are as they wait for their government’s review of telecoms infrastructure to be released in the northern spring.

The NCSC’s finding echoes those of pundits from around the world who labelled the decision by Five Eyes intelligence agencies as being more about protectionism and trade, given no evidence has surfaced that Huawei’s network equipment poses any security threat at all.

Since a clandestine meeting by spy agency heads in Nova Scotia in July last year where a joint ban was agreed on, other dirty plays have included allegations of fraud and trade secret theft against Huawei, whose CFO was arrested in Canada and extradited to the USA.

Given that the UK has access to some of the most highly sensitive US intelligence and it’s no longer seeing Huawei as a major threat, it’s fair to assume that other allies such as New Zealand will also start to question the ban. In short, the GCSB and the New Zealand Government have got to make some decisions.

GCSB Minister, Andrew Little, has previously said there is no ban on Huawei and that the case arose because of the GCSB’s role in vetting telco network upgrades. Equipped with the NCSC’s recommendations, it’s probable the GCSB could approve a revised Spark/Huawei proposal. This could let the government avoid the wrath of China, New Zealand’s biggest trading partner, while also giving the government enough room to avoid a falling out with Five Eyes partners.

While this is potentially good news for Huawei and local telcos including Spark and 2Degrees, questions still need to be asked. Just how did a ban, seemingly based on little more than innuendo and rumour, come to pass? Why were intelligence agencies, who are charged with keeping us safe, use such a blunt weapon to enforce protectionism? If these questions ever get answered (which is pretty unlikely), the governments of Five Eyes states need to make sure similar silliness never happens again.

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