A Huawei phone mast is to be installed next to a secret MI5 data centre, despite government directives to strip the Chinese company's equipment from UK mobile networks in the next seven years.
The mobile mast is to be built at a West London location across the road from a Security Service bit barn – no more than 30 yards away – and the base station powering the mast is made by Huawei.
News of the eye-popping erection was broken by the excellent Secret Bases website, whose author, Alan Turnbull, described the new mast's location as "astonishing".
"It is not immediately clear whether it is an accidental encroachment by the mobile operators or a deliberate ploy by MI5 to tap into the networks at a high power cell site," Turnbull wrote (scroll down to the heading "GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 Secret Rooms for BT Equipment").
El Reg has reviewed the data centre's location (just another unobtrusive warehouse in an unremarkable industrial estate) and planning documents submitted by EE that were approved by the local council. We are not revealing its precise location in case enemies of the British state stick pneumatic drills through the pavements surrounding it – or apply to build another mobile mast next door.
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EE, BT's mobile arm, the operator behind the offending mast, told the local council the mast was needed to extend network coverage for the UK's Emergency Services Network, as well as its own consumer-facing operation. The telco is set to install a Huawei BTS3900A base station with the 20-metre monopole mast, a move that might cause problems with its secret-squirrel neighbours.
Back in July, the British government declared a total ban on Huawei mobile network equipment in the UK would come into force in 2027. Until then, operators are free to install whatever kit they need to keep Britain's networks running. They can continue to buy new Huawei kit, and install it, as EE has done, until the end of 2020.
Officials have long worried that Huawei's pisspoor software development practices pose a security threat to Britain, and political briefings have been filled for the past few years with US-led warnings that Huawei is a front for the Chinese state to surveil foreign communications networks, a point consistently denied by the company.
EE's surveyors even proposed mounting the new mast on the roof of the MI5 data centre, seemingly unaware of what was inside the warehouse-style building. Only its sloped roof stopped surveyors from recommending that plan.
A Home Office spokeswoman, on behalf of MI5, told The Register: "We have strict controls for how Huawei is deployed and it is not in any sensitive networks."
Although local councillors and planning officers were told of the new mast's precise location, MI5 did such a good job of being unobtrusive that nobody in local government appears to have realised the implications.
Sometimes it's possible to be too sneaky-beaky. ®