Britain can handle the security risks involved with using mobile networks made by China’s Huawei Technologies Co (華為), its cybersecurity chief said on Wednesday, adding to a growing debate among countries on whether the company should be banned, as the US wants.
It is important to have “sustainable diversity” in the supply of telecommunications equipment, British National Cyber Security Centre chief executive officer Ciaran Martin said, adding that his agency could handle the challenges involved in monitoring suppliers who might not be considered trustworthy — a hint at Huawei.
Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of switching gear for phone and Internet companies, has faced rising scrutiny over US allegations that it could be forced by the Chinese government to provide access to consumer data on its networks.
As countries roll out new high-speed 5G mobile networks, they are seeking suppliers and the issue of whether to ban Huawei has become a heated debate.
Some frame it as a cold evaluation of the technical risks. Others see it as part of a broader tussle between the US and China for technological dominance.
The US has effectively blocked Huawei for years and is accusing China of stealing technology from foreign companies.
US government officials, including US Vice President Mike Pence, publicly warned European allies against using Huawei during a visit last week.
Authorities and telecoms in countries such as Germany, Norway and the Czech Republic have been reassessing Huawei’s role in 5G networks, while Australia, New Zealand and Japan have already moved to curb the use of its gear to varying degrees.
China has stridently defended Huawei, considered a crown jewel in its push to become a global technology power, and denounced security concerns as part of a US-led plot to restrain the country’s development.
“The United States and a few of its allies are using double standards and deliberately misleading the public on the issue,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) said on Monday.
“It’s hypocritical, immoral and unfair bullying behaviors,” Geng said.
Experts say Huawei networks are generally cheaper than those of competitors and are of a high quality, making it a difficult decision for governments and telecoms to shun the supplier altogether.
Banning Huawei could also delay the rollout of 5G networks, which are considered necessary for the next generation of Internet-connected things, from self-driving cars to smart factories.
The British government is due to complete a review of its policies on the safety of 5G next month or in April.
Martin said no decisions have yet been made and “everything is on the table.”
Since 2010, the British government has run a cybersecurity evaluation center for Huawei equipment, which Martin said was part of “the toughest and most rigorous oversight regime in the world” for the company.
“It is proving its worth,” he said, according to a transcript of a speech he gave at a conference in Brussels.
The cybersecurity center in July identified technical issues in Huawei’s engineering processes that could make it less safe.
Huawei last month said that it would take three to five years to fix the problems.
Martin said the issues his agency identified relate to cybersecurity standards and are “not indicators of hostile activity by China.”
Mistakes in software are the biggest issue for cybersecurity, more so than the risk of a foreign government getting backdoor access, he told reporters.
Huawei competes with a few big rivals, notably Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson, to supply equipment for 5G networks.
Martin said it is important not to let the telecom equipment supplier market shrink too much.
“Any company in an excessively dominant market position will not be incentivized to take cybersecurity seriously,” Martin said, adding that such a company could be a “prime target for attack for the globe’s most potent cyberattackers.”
In a sign of Britain’s division over 5G, a security think tank warned the same day against using Huawei gear.
“Allowing Huawei’s participation is at best naive, at worst irresponsible,” the Royal United Services Institute said in a report, which cited factors, including the difficulty of finding hidden “back doors” in software.
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