Huawei is a known security risk. Why is the British government partnering with them?

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s government has granted Chinese telecom giant Huawei a contract to supply hardware and software to its new 5G network. US president Donald Trump’s administration is vehemently opposed, and both are engaged in a battle of wills.

The Americans may well be correct. While currently unproven, there is substantial evidence that Huawei have at best waged a systematic attempt to gain access to government secrets in the Anglosphere (USA, UK, Canada and Australia), or at worst have been able to penetrate the top secret telecoms networks of all four countries.

From my sources it is reasonable to theorise Huawei may have been able to retrieve the numbers and even conversations of FBI, CIA and NSA operatives.

I have spoken to an ex-employee of an American telecoms company who claims to have discovered the hack in 2010. Huawei designed into the networking equipment protocols that allowed a function which could gather and transmit hacked information, he said.

Most unified threat management software looks for external threats, meaning internal threats get overlooked. It is the equivalent of installing anti-virus software on your PC which then passes your information on to those who wish to benefit criminally.

For those of you more technically inclined, malicious microchips were deliberately designed and placed in landline and mobile phone networks. The chips where coded to create sub-interfaces to transmit and then tear down the interface and purge logs. It is a clever way of reverse hacking a telecoms network, staging the attack from the inside where the data is as firewalls are looking for intrusion hackers and not for ‘safe’ users from the within the network. The software creates a ‘portal’ through which it can transmit the data to the target IP address and then close down the portal without being discovered. This way the hack can never be discovered.

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei was founded in 1987 by the current CEO Ren Zhengfei. He is a former engineer with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and current member of the Communist Party. All medium-to-large Chinese companies have a party member on their board and Chinese companies are obliged to work on behalf of the state if instructed. Not the customer, not the shareholders – the state.

Certainly, the Chinese government has been accused of overt spying. In 2015, up to eighteen million employees and failed applicants of the American Federal government had their personal details accessed by China. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) initially admitted to 4.3 million breaches but FBI Director James Comey briefed Senators in private to the full scale of the hack.

It is believed the hackers had full system administration rights to all aspects of government databases and staff data. An OPM official remarked that the Chinese had in their possession the “keys to the kingdom.”

In the UK, Huawei has been involved in the national infrastructure since 2005 via British Telecom (BT). Major concerns have been raised by the security services.

In 2013, under the chairmanship of Sir Malcom Rifkind, a damning report from the Intelligence and Security Committee detailed: “The Security Service had already told us in early 2008 that, theoretically, the Chinese State may be able to exploit any vulnerabilities in Huawei’s equipment in order to gain some access to the BT network, which would provide them with an attractive espionage opportunity. 

“Furthermore, the Committee understands that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had previously warned that if a hostile actor were to exploit such an opportunity, an attack “would be very difficult to detect or prevent and could enable the Chinese to intercept covertly or disrupt traffic passing through Huawei supplied networks”.”

In 2010, Huawei had set up the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

A 2015 government report noted: “HCSEC is a facility in Banbury, Oxfordshire, belonging to Huawei Technologies(UK) Co. Ltd., whose parent company is a Chinese headquartered company which is now one of the world’s largest telecommunications providers.”

It further noted that HCSEC’s “infrastructure meets the UK Government’s standards as a secure facility. It is a crucial part of a set of arrangements agreed earlier that year between the company and HM Government about mitigating any perceived risks to UK national security arising from the involvement of Huawei in parts of the UK’s critical national infrastructure.

“HCSEC provides security evaluation for a range of products and services used in the UK market.”

Following the Intelligence and Security Committee report in 2013, the government set up an oversight board for HCSEC to “oversee and ensure the independence, competence and overall effectiveness of HCSEC,” according to that 2015 government report, which was in fact the board’s first.

It continued: “By doing so it [the board] is then able to advise the National Security Adviser (to whom this report is formally submitted), allowing him to provide assurance to Ministers, Parliament and ultimately the general public that the risks are being well managed.”

Nonetheless, just because a security advisor provides assurance to ministers and the public that risks are being well managed, it doesn’t follow that they necessarily are, especially if the hack is hidden in a way to conceal it from security measures. One can only speculate on what Huawei may have accessed from the British government and intellectual property of private companies, should they have decided to use their expertise to spy. 

In 2013, Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA was quoted by Australian Financial Review as saying in his “professional judgment,” Huawei supplied intelligence to ­China. “At a minimum, Huawei would have shared with the Chinese state intimate and extensive knowledge of the foreign telecommunications systems it is involved with. I think that goes without saying,” he said, according to the BBC. The original article has since been removed from the internet.

Huawei strenuously denied the allegations, describing them as “unsubstantiated and defamatory”.

In February 2018 the heads of all the American intelligence community including the heads of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the director of national intelligence, issued a warning that, for security reasons, people should not use Huawei and ZTE phones and kit.

Nonetheless, here is Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson taking a selfie with TV presenters using his Huawei P-20.

David Atherton is a libertarian writer and broadcaster, who has contributed to the BBC, ITV, Talk Radio, and Breitbart, as well as Chinese-owned CCTV.