Wed, Aug 10, 2016 - Page 9 News List

UK’s Cell tries to balance security concerns, cheap technology

Chinese firm Huawei established a center in England, overseen by a UK government board, working to ensure that its own technology cannot be compromised

By Juliette Garside  /  The Guardian

Welcome to the Cell. All visitors must surrender their cellphones at the door. No cameras or filming equipment allowed.

In a deceptively humdrum office block on the outskirts of Banbury, Oxfordshire, a team of cybersecurity experts is working to combat the risk of surveillance and hacking attacks from China.

The Cell’s technicians have the highest level of security clearance, with their personal and financial histories combed by investigating officers. Their work is overseen by a board that includes directors from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Cabinet Office and Home Office.

However, the Cell’s staff are not on the British government payroll. They are employed by Huawei, one of China’s largest technology companies.

A maker of broadband and mobile network equipment, its kit is installed all over the UK.

In Banbury, the task is to check Huawei hardware and software for faults and bugs that could be exploited for nefarious purposes. Circuit boards are dismantled and millions of lines of software code are analyzed.

The center was created as a compromise — between the security concerns of intelligence agencies and the private sector’s desire for cheap imported technology.

With former British chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne’s ejection from the Treasury, China has lost its main cheerleader in government. New British Prime Minister Theresa May is taking a more cautious approach. A decision on allowing the Beijing-backed Hinkley Point power station project to go ahead has been delayed at her request.

In a climate of cooling economic relations, could the Cell provide a model for managing the potential risks of Chinese involvement in critical national infrastructure?

Perhaps. Up and running for five years now, the Huawei Cyber Security Centre, to use its official name, is regarded as a success by the board of government officials that oversees its work.

In their second annual report, published this spring, they found the arrangements to ensure the Cell was independent from Huawei were operating “robustly and effectively,” and that any potential threats to national security “have been sufficiently mitigated.”

However, in 2013, the Banbury operation was heavily criticized by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, then chaired by former British secretary of state for defence Malcolm Rifkind.

Lawmakers had decided to review its work after a US Senate report raised the alarm, urging US firms not to use the company’s equipment.

Attempts by Huawei to take over US technology companies had been blocked. In Australia, it was barred from bidding for the country’s multibillion-dollar project to connect every home to a superfast broadband service.

CONCERNS

Rifkind’s committee concluded that the Cell’s staff should not be Huawei employees. His report warned this amounted to Huawei “effectively policing themselves.” He recommended Banbury be staffed by GCHQ, and failing that, subject to much greater scrutiny by government officials.

And so, in 2014, security experts from the highest echelons of the civil service were brought together, along with representatives of Vodafone, Huawei and BT, to create the Cell’s oversight board. It is currently chaired by Ciaran Martin, director-general for cybersecurity at GCHQ.

Concerns persist. Ernst & Young, hired to evaluate whether the Cell is truly independent from Huawei headquarters, concluded that the ability of the company to set the bonus of Cell managing director David Pollington, hired from Microsoft last year, “provides a vector by which performance ... could be influenced.”

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