Reports emerging from New Zealand suggest local carrier Spark has been blocked from buying Huawei kit for its 5G rollout. The Kiwi national security minister, however, has given the report a lukewarm denial.
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The New Zealand Herald reported that Spark had been informed of the ban by Andrew Hampton, director general of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
The GCSB cited "significant national security risks" as the reason for its decision. It was, at first, apparently backed up by its minister, Andrew Little, who said a Huawei implementation would have exposed Spark's network to the risk of "intervention in an unauthorised way".
However, Little later told the Herald that GCSB's assessment doesn't necessarily mean a ban, because Spark and Huawei could work together to allay the spooks' national security concerns.
Like that of Australia, the government of New Zealand has legislated to give its spooks the power to block "risky" vendors from important networks, as well as a veto over network architectures they don't like, in the "The Telecommunications Interception Capability & Security Act" (Australia's parallel is the "The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill").
Carriers are concerned that a Huawei ban would leave only Ericsson and Nokia able to bid into 5G rollouts, which would make the builds more expensive.
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New Zealand tech commentator Paul Brislen told The Register: "Five Eyes versus hard dollars seems to be the fight going on at the moment" as the country is pulled in one direction by China, a major trading partner, and in the other by the "old club" of the Five Eyes nations (Australia, the USA, Canada and the UK).
Spark, he said, is in a very difficult position. It needs a rapid network rollout because it is contracted to build a 5G network for the America's Cup in 2021.
The processes of challenging the GCSB decision, Brislen said, is slow, and Spark probably doesn't have the time.
If the GCSB refuses a proposed network build, he explained, the telco can offer a risk management framework – but it needs staff with security clearance before the spooks will document their concerns.
Even with that in place, Brislen said, the GCSB can still refuse the build, and the carrier would have to take the issue to the Office of Security Warrants before getting the chance to seek ministerial intervention.
That's unlikely in the circumstances, so while the minister was correct in saying the ban was not technically a ban, it may as well be.
Brislen added that the national security concerns surrounding Huawei look like "smoke and mirrors", with no hard evidence in public that scenarios such as data exfiltration to China or national-scale "off switches" are feasible.
Australia has also been opposing Huawei's participation in submarine cable projects in the region. In June 2018, it successfully displaced the Chinese vendor from a Solomon Islands contract.