It's make your mind up time for the UK over Huawei security saga

James Warrington
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Day 2 - GSMA Mobile World Congress 2019
There is still no coherent policy position from the UK government over Huawei (Source: Getty)

It’s been a bad week for beleaguered Chinese tech giant Huawei. In an eagerly-anticipated report published today, UK spies concluded they can only provide “limited assurance” that the risks to national security from Huawei’s products have been mitigated.

The findings are in line with last year’s report, but the lack of progress has raised eyebrows. One cyber security expert told City A.M. some of Huawei’s security practices “would be bad even 15 years ago”. Huawei has pledged to spend $2bn over five years to rectify the issues, but this has failed to settle nerves at GCHQ.

Read more: UK slams Huawei for 'long term security risks'

Technology always has its vulnerabilities, and security flaws are par for the course. But Huawei’s shortcomings, coupled with China’s draconian intelligence laws, mean the issue has been transformed into a political saga.

As countries gear up for a rollout of 5G – for which Huawei is a main supplier – leaders around the world have weighed in on the issue. The Trump administration has been characteristically blunt in its approach, saying Huawei poses a fundamental security risk. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo issued a stark warning to the US’s allies, saying the use of Huawei equipment could compromise intelligence-sharing arrangements.

Australia has heeded the warning by issuing a complete ban of the Chinese firm in its 5G network, while Angela Merkel has insisted that Germany will define its own security standards for 5G.

All of a sudden the debate has become a political battlefield, threatening the foundations of longstanding diplomatic ties.

And yet the UK remains quiet on the issue. While the National Cyber Security Centre – through its secretive Banbury facility nicknamed The Cell – undoubtedly has careful oversight of Huawei, there is still no coherent policy position from the government.

Read more: Trump: UK's 5G plans put national security at risk

There is, admittedly, no easy answer. Huawei is at the forefront of 5G development, and so a ban on its equipment would hamper efforts to roll out the new technology. Even more moderate action, such as placing restrictions to ensure one supplier is not dominant, could be a major setback. On the other hand, there are clear indicators that national security might be compromised. It’s a question of how much risk the UK is willing to take.

Lost, perhaps, in the fog of Brexit, the government has hedged its bets. But the upcoming telecoms supply chain review provides an opportunity to outline a clear position. Let’s hope they take it.