Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, has warned that the final decision is yet to be taken on the question of deploying Chinese equipment in the UK’s future 5G networks and that the stakeholders need to have a conversation before deciding on the same.
With the United States, Australia, and New Zealand banning Huawei from participating in their respective 5G network trials citing national security concerns, experts have already questioned if the UK should also follow suit and restrict Chinese equipment manufacturers from participating in the country’s 5G trials.
In April this year, Dr. Ian Levy, the technical director of the NCSC, wrote a letter to telecommunications companies in the UK, asking them not to purchase or deploy equipment and services provided by ZTE as the same would pose a threat to the UK’s national security.
Concerns about Chinese interference rising
Even though the National Cyber Security Centre is yet to take such a stand against Huawei, it recently told telecom firms in the UK that they should be careful while selecting their 5G equipment suppliers and must take into consideration the findings of a recent review of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure which was initiated to ensure that the UK’s “critical national infrastructure remains resilient and secure”.
Various security analysts in the United States, in Europe and in Australia have expressed concerns about China’s National Intelligence Law which requires Chinese organisations to “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work” and to provide necessary support, assistance, and cooperation to national intelligence work institutions. The law also states that national intelligence work institutions “are to use the necessary means, tactics, and channels to carry out intelligence efforts, domestically and abroad”.
“Huawei could be used to enable espionage, with or without Huawei corporate’s complicity. Espionage doesn’t necessarily require sophisticated ‘backdoors’— even compelling Chinese engineers to assist could enable Chinese intelligence services to get useful access to Australia’s 5G network,” noted Tom Uren, a visiting fellow at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, in an article for The Strategist.
MI6 and NCSC ask telecoms to be cautious
It seems that such concerns are now being heard by the UK government and its cyber security watchdog. In a recent interview given to FT, Dr Levy spoke about being concerned about the possibility of Chinese interference in the UK’s telecom infrastructure.
“The thing we care about the most is the availability of the networks. Can someone in Beijing press a button and turn off every piece of Huawei kit and what does that mean for the UK networks? That’s the number one concern,” he said.
In a recent speech, Alex Younger, the chief of MI6 which is also known as the SIS, echoed Dr Levy’s concern by stating that there needs to be a conversation between stakeholders in the UK to decide whether Chinese communications equipment should be allowed to be deployed in the UK’s telecom infrastructure.
“We need to decide the extent to which we are going to be comfortable with Chinese ownership of these technologies and these platforms in an environment where some of our allies have taken a quite definite position. We need to have a conversation. It’s not wholly straightforward,” he said.