Why a ban on Huawei carries its own security risks

The government is preparing to remove the company's telecoms equipment from our mobile networks, but it will take a decade – and some experts are concerned that it will create new problems.

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In January, Boris Johnson finally unveiled the government's long-awaited policy position on Huawei. The decision essentially mirrored the approach Theresa May had intended to propose last year before it was leaked. Under the proposals, the Chinese tech giant was set to be given a limited role in Britain's 5G networks; the "high risk vendor" would be excluded from the network cores and limited to a 35 per cent share of the market.

While the move was supported by security officials, for the White House and several of the government's own MPs, it didn't go far enough. Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and others proceeded to launch a back-bench rebellion designed to force network operators to remove the company's telecoms equipment entirely from their networks by the beginning of 2023. Although the government won the vote, it did so by just 24 votes, prompting speculation at the time that there may have been further trouble ahead for the company. 

Now, as Beijing seeks to extend its security powers over Hong Kong, anti-Huawei sentiment is rising in parliament once again. In order to ward off an embarrassing defeat, the government reportedly intends to stop vendors from buying new Huawei equipment by the end of this year, along with its removal from the 5G networks by 2026-27 and full extraction by 2029. The government had initially been considering barring telecoms companies from buying new Huawei kit by 2023, but Tory backbenchers wanted more imminent action and are pushing for the firm to be banned from 5G networks by the same date.

"To do a change-out of existing Huawei kit would definitely be time-consuming if done properly," says John Byrne, a telecoms analyst at GlobalData, which is part of the same group as the New Statesman. The company's equipment has become so deeply embedded in British telecoms networks that this would "require change-out of not just radios on masts but also core networking gear, essentially the 'brains' in the network", says Byrne. "That said, the 2026-27 timeframe would be more than enough time to make that swap."

In May, the Trump administration introduced a new rule that would prohibit Huawei's suppliers from using US software to design their chips, closing a loophole in existing restrictions. The UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), commissioned by the government to review the impact of these restrictions, has reportedly determined that, under the new rules, Huawei might ultimately have to start developing its own chip design software, further complicating the work of the British security officials who vet Huawei's kit. In light of this change, the former MI6 director John Sawers, who had initially supported the limited role the government was planning to grant the company, has changed his stance too. 

See also: Isabel Hilton on Huawei and the end of the "golden decade" in China-UK relations

"There are now sound technical reasons for the UK to change January’s decision, which would have allowed Huawei to have an up to 35 per cent stake in the UK’s 5G market, and exclude the company instead," Sawers wrote in an op-ed for the Financial Times. "The security assessment is now different because the facts have changed. It helps Boris Johnson that its conclusion points in the same direction as the political pressure from Conservative members of parliament."

However, not all security experts are satisfied that NCSC's concerns justify ripping out the company's equipment entirely. Alan Woodward, a professor of cyber security at Surrey University, notes that the equipment that has been installed in the network has already been vetted by the NCSC's Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre. And while the question of how to replace worn out parts poses its own challenges in light of the new restrictions, Woodward is concerned about a potential "balkanisation" of the telecoms equipment market that could ultimately leave Britain and the US more exposed.

"I personally think that the more interdependent we are economically, the more chance we have of persuading China of taking certain actions or mitigating their actions, whereas [the Conservative rebels] say they want to pull up the drawbridge and have nothing more to do with them. But that's very naive because you're then down to Nokia and Ericsson when it comes to 5G." Although the Chinese market is dominated by domestic suppliers, both Ericsson and Nokia have secured business in the country. Woodward warns that Nokia, which is already facing significant challenges, could suffer if the Chinese government decided to retaliate.

In the event that Nokia needed rescuing, the US and like-minded nations may be willing to step in, but that would still leave the UK telecoms network with just two major suppliers. And if an unintended security flaw was found in one of the supplier's products, it could compromise half of the country's network. "The reason that you have diversity is that it lends resilience," says Woodward. "We're going the opposite way."

See also: Patrick Maguire on the Huawei vote that was won by a margin of just 20

Oscar Williams is the editor of the New Statesman's technology site, NS Tech.

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