Game of Phones - Securing the UK’s digital future

Posted On: 
20th March 2019

Dods Monitoring’s Guinevere Poncia asks how the UK is dealing with potential security threats in its telecoms infrastructure.

"Huawei has grand plans to 'dominate the market' in providing pioneering communications technology for 5G mobile networks."

In recent months, the activities of the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has caused consternation over the security of the UK’s 5G telecommunications infrastructure. Huawei has grand plans to “dominate the market” in providing pioneering communications technology for 5G mobile networks. Its products are already embedded into the infrastructure of several major UK companies.

But there is a problem - in 2017, the Chinese Government passed sweeping legislation (the ‘National Intelligence Law’) that compels Chinese companies to cooperate with the security services on intelligence matters, potentially compromising the security of communications networks in countries where Huawei operates.  

As a result, the security of the UK’s 5G telecommunications infrastructure – a pioneering aspect of digital connectivity policy first announced in 2016 – has caused significant concern. The US has been pressuring international partners to exclude the company and, following suit, Five Eyes members Australia and New Zealand banned Huawei back in August last year. The UK, however, has not been so blunt.

Jeremy Wright commented at Davos that “there is cause for us to be cautious” about the Huawei’s involvement in existing projects. Meanwhile, the National Cyber Security Centre, a subsidiary of GCHQ, has unofficially indicated that Huawei’s involvement can be “managed”.

The issue has drawn the most senior spymasters into the public eye. Head of MI6 Alex Younger commented that it was “a more complicated issue than in or out” and countries had “a sovereign right to work through the answer to all of this”. In a rare speech, GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming emphasised the need to grasp “the opportunities and threats from China’s technological offer” and consider the quality of service “irrespective of the flag of the supplier”.

The NCSC’s final judgement will feed into the broader government review on the use of Huawei technology in core 5G infrastructure in the Telecoms Supply Chain Review, which is due to report to ministers in the spring. The content of both reviews is a closely guarded secret. What’s clear, however, is that this represents a significant moment in how the competing priorities of market competitiveness, a diverse supply base, national security and international relations will be measured and balanced in a post-Brexit future.

 

Guinevere is a Political Consultant at Dods specialising in technology, science and defence policy.  nterested in monitoring technology policies that relate to your business? Download a free copy of our Tech & Digital Bulletin from Dods Monitoring. This is a monthly report on policy developments, including a lookahead on what’s to come in the next few months. Download here.