Debate around Huawei espionage fears in UK about as clear as those darn Brexit negotiations

Digital secretary responds to Commons Science and Technology Committee, sort of

Considering the state of political discourse in Britain, it comes as little surprise that the government has no idea whether it should follow allies and start banning certain foreign firms – most notably Huawei – from national telecommunications infrastructure projects.

The US, New Zealand and Australia have all moved to limit the presence of Chinese vendors' kit in their networks over fears it could be used by spies.

In January, Norman Lamb, chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, wrote to government ministers to ask whether the country's networks were secure, and if the Chinese hardware vendors really posed a threat.

We have now seen a reply (PDF), put together by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for the country's telco infrastructure – and it is completely devoid of any meaningful content.

"Where national security concerns may arise, for any foreign investment the Government will assess the risks and consider possible responses. So it is right that we should take stock now so that we can make evidence-based decisions to secure our long-term national security and the resilience of our telecoms infrastructure," wrote Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

"The recent attribution of state-sponsored malicious cyber activity to the Chinese Ministry of State Security reiterates the importance of our continued vigilance in this area."

This clearly wasn't the reply Lamb was expecting. "The response we have received from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has shed very little light on the extent of the potential threat to national security arising from foreign involvement in the UK's communications infrastructure, or on how the Government monitors and manages this risk," he said.

"One thing is clear: there are obvious tensions between the various departments involved, reinforcing the view that the government is struggling to reach a consensus on this issue."

In his letter, Wright also suggested that the government's Telecoms Supply Chain Review, due out later this year, might finally provide some clarity on how to deal with Chinese networking companies.

Huawei has been operating in the UK for many years – it got its first major European contract with British Telecom in 2005. The Chinese vendor has 15 offices across the country, maintains R&D partnerships with at least 10 British universities – the one with Oxford is on pause – and has invested in a photonics centre in Ipswich.

Back in 2010, when another government report raised similar questions about cybersecurity, the company established the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), where its gear is tested by representatives of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). HCSEC has previously found "shortcomings" in the design of the equipment – but nothing that would suggest involvement of foreign secret services.

Earlier today, David Dyson, CEO of Three UK, told the BBC that banning Huawei in the country would delay the introduction of 5G networking. A few weeks prior, the Chinese company was defended by Vodafone's chief exec Nick Read, who said pretty much the same thing.

Huawei has repeatedly and strenuously denied all allegations of espionage and no evidence of backdoors for spies – intentional or otherwise – has been demonstrated. At the same time, according to the Chinese National Intelligence Law, passed in June 2017, any Chinese individual or organisation can be forced to support, assist or cooperate with national intelligence work.

"Laws of this nature are not uncommon, other nations have them or a relationship between state and intelligence apparatus that does not require a specific law to facilitate unconditional cooperation," Wright said, seemingly in defence of Huawei.

Germany's 5G spectrum auction began on Thursday, and the Chinese vendor was allowed to participate. The country's cyber-risk assessment agency told Der Spiegel in December that there was "currently no reliable evidence" of a risk from Huawei. ®

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