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24 November 2021updated 15 Nov 2021 4:19pm

Cyber security is a team game

Collaboration is the key to innovation, but too often geopolitics gets in the way

By Jeremy Thompson

The growing sophistication of the cybercriminals who prey on digital vulnerability presents a real threat to all of us. Only by working together can we stop them.

You only need to be aware of what’s happening on the dark web to see that cybercriminals are getting better and better at what they do and that they’re starting to collaborate. That’s why the cyber security industry needs collaboration too. From users, operators, builders, designers and vendors to installers and everyone else, input across all these links in the chain is critical. Security by design has to be a team game.

There is a role for everyone in cyber security, from the initial design of new software through to each end user at home. The pandemic has highlighted just how important the end user is in ensuring strong cyber security in their homes and businesses; attacks take place on multiple levels and are no longer purely technical. However, they’re not the only players. There’s a role for every participant in the supply chain, and different parts of the chain see different risks and can make different contributions. We are all responsible for getting technology safely and securely into everyone’s hands.

Security is all about collaboration

If we go back to basics, the phrase “security by design” is often used in the industry when we talk about product creation. In order to fulfil this principle, software designers need to have full visibility on what threats are out there and understand how they work. The only way to achieve this is through collaboration across the supply chain. Working in isolation will only result in incorrect or missing information.

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Our products are the perfect example of the benefits that working across all these links can bring. We’re just one part of the chain. Huawei doesn’t run networks – we provide technology in the networks. It’s a small part that’s integrated with many other parts.

We make the biggest strides forward when all the industry’s stakeholders work together collaboratively to come up with a set of standards that helps the whole industry. Common standards create economies of scale that everyone benefits from. It means the industry can constantly pool innovation. If cyber innovation is left to one organisation we’ll all be weaker as a result.

Take the unit price of a 4G handset as an example. In many cases you can buy one for less than $50. That low cost would be inconceivable if you had five or six different sets of standards across the world because you wouldn’t get the benefits from those economies of scale. It took several generations of having separate wireless standards in different regions before we arrived at a global, universal standard with 3G wireless. The improvements in the telecommunications industry are vast. The security for 4G is better than 3G, and 5G is substantially better than 4G. That’s a result of working together and identifying where the weaknesses are, fixing those, then trying to anticipate new threats.

But geopolitics can too often get in the way of collaboration. Putting politics over technology results in the fragmentation of standards – and that’s a huge step backwards. If we all end up having different technology for different places, that would take us back 20 to 30 years.

Innovation should not be political

We need to maintain trust, and this means we need to have a voice and a conversation based on innovation and on investment in research and development (R&D) – without letting politics get in the way.

5G technology involves having billions of devices connected to masts. It’s the key facilitator for the Internet of Things, which will boom in the coming years. The connected devices will be varied, from monitors that keep a track of what’s in your fridge, what the temperature is outside, and what your heart rate is, right through to electric and autonomous vehicles, and wide applications in industry and high-value manufacturing.

It’s not as simple as just smartphones any more – it’s multiple devices. Securing those devices in a consistent way is vital. Government is an extremely important stakeholder in all of this, and you can give the UK government credit for pre-empting threats by setting standards for security for the Internet of Things. These standards mean that if someone in Asia is creating a device for the UK market then they know how they should build those devices. That’s hugely helpful, not least for the manufacturers, but also for end users, who have an assured level of security.

In 5G that’s even more relevant for business-to-business applications, so the private sector can start relying more on sensors and data from connected devices when it comes to things like just-in-time logistics and production, smart manufacturing, and anything reliant on big data. Different sectors can have high levels of confidence because of a guarantee of this base level of security. In turn that will result in greater adoption, and scope for further investment and innovation. It creates a virtuous circle of improvement rather than having seeds of mistrust in the industry. It isn’t good for the economy at large if we’re blocked from getting the benefits of new technology.

Huawei is an equipment manufacturer. We make hardware. What we’re great at is innovation – which is why we invest so heavily in R&D. Last year, our R&D spend was $22bn, comparable to the entire UK government’s target of £22bn per year. It’s a huge amount that’s going towards developing products that are secure by design. We work with others in the industry to create a high set of security standards and a security ecosystem, so our key contribution is some of the basic innovation and R&D that will create patents and technologies to support customers.

Our contribution to common standards is that basic R&D, which is then enhanced with specific initiatives for customers. Our key message is that this is a team game. It’s end users, operators, governments, vendors, standards bodies and more, and it’s the relationship between them that makes a secure environment. We’re at risk of losing all the benefits of innovation if we start fragmenting based on country of origin and on political machinations. Technology and innovation should be above that. ●

Jeremy Thompson is executive vice president at Huawei UK

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