Huawei, Chinese telecom
Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, is a security challenge for the Five Eyes.

[Inside the Five Eyes: a series: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 is below].

Once unknown, the Five Eyes is now coming into public view as supra-national surveillance service.

The Five Eyes track terrorists and smugglers. They coordinate drone strikes and disaster response. They have the ability to find, locate and surveil almost anyone in the world. The technological powers of the Five Eyes re unparalleled, its workings mostly secret.

Yet for all its vaunted powers, it is suddenly vulnerable, with U.S. intelligence officials fearful its capabilities could be compromised or neutralized by an unmanned insider threat: Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.

In 2018, the Australian representatives to the Five began to rally their counterparts against Huawei, which is building 5G networks in dozens of countries. These networks, which promise to expand internet capacity a hundred-fold, are key to future plans of many countries and companies. Disturbed by the possibility Huawei could build back doors into the West’s most sensitive telecommunications networks, three of the Five Eyes—Australia, U.S. and New Zealand– banned Huawei from their broadband networks.

In May 2019  President Trump went further issuing an order to block or require conditions for any telecommunications transactions linked to a “foreign adversary,” defined as a country, company, or person “engaged in a long-term pattern or serious instances of conduct significantly adverse to” national security or to security and safety of U.S. citizens or businesses.

Huawei was not mentioned by name in Trump’s order, but the company is clearly its primary target. The firm’s chief financial officer, daughter of its founder, is under arrest in Canada and facing deportation to the United States on charges that Huawei violated sanctions on Iran. China says the charges are a pretext to take down an economic competitor.

The fear is that Huawei, in collaboration with China’s Ministry of State Security and People’s Liberation Army, could write code or insert chips into its products that would give China access to the Five Eyes most sensitive secrets and operations that would be impossible to detect.

 “Allowing Huawei’s inclusion in our 5G infrastructure could seriously jeopardize our national security and put critical supply chains at risk,” Sen. Mark Warner, a former tech entrepreneur, told The Verge in 2019. “…It could also undermine U.S. competitiveness at a time when China is already attempting to surpass the U.S. technologically and economically through the use of state-directed and state-supported technology transfers.”

Michael Hayden, CIA
Michael Hayden, former NSA director (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Huawei executives complain the United States is simply trying to protect the its global spying network. “Clearly the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks,” wrote Huawei chairman Gou Ping in the Financial Times, “the harder it becomes for NSA to ‘collect it all.’ …. Huawei hampers U.S. efforts to spy on whomever it wants.”

They also argue that U.S. firms are threatened by Huawei’s low prices and technological innovation. They liked to note that Huawei registered more patents than any company in the world last year, according to the United Nation’ World Intellectual Property Organization.

 “Hobbling a leader in 5G technology would erode the economic and social benefits that would otherwise accrue the countries that roll it out early,” Gou said. “The global campaign against Huawei has little to do with security, and everything to do with America’s desire to suppress a rising technological competitor.”

Gen. Michael Hayden,  chief of the NSA from 1999 to 2005, all but conceded the point in a 2013 interview.

“We’re in essence taking the lowest bidder out of the competition [by banning Huawei],” Hayden told an Australian interviewer. “But, frankly, this isn’t very hard for us to do in the security domain: I mean, it’s almost reflexive given what we believe.”

Allies Divided

Some allies did not agree. In May 2019,  Jeremy Fleming, director of the GCHQ, said Huawei is “a hugely complex strategic challenge which will span the next few decades, probably our whole professional lives.” In this view, Huawei is a challenge that cannot be eliminated, only managed.

The Canadian government has said it sees no need to exclude Huawei from the country’s 5G roll out. And at a meeting of NATO allies in April 2019, the German delegation joined the British in rebuffing the American demands on Huawei.

In response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We’ve made clear that if the risk exceeds the threshold for the United States, we simply won’t be able to share that information any longer.” 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided in January to allow Huawei into “non-sensitive parts” of the country’s 5G network, capping its involvement at 35%. This angered the United States, which wants to exclude Huawei from the West’s next-generation communications systems entirely.

But in July, the British government reversed that position and said it would exclude Huawei entirely from the 5G networks in the UK.

From the Washington Post:

The British decision to unplug from Huawei, announced in the House of Commons by the government’s digital and media minister Oliver Dowden, will take full effect in January — and it will delay Britain’s rollout of 5G service by two to three years and cost billions of dollars. The British announcement marks a significant moment in the movement away from China in the global 5G competition, especially among advanced democracies increasingly concerned that the company’s ties to the Communist government.

The Post story didn’t mention it, but the drive to keep Huawei out of Western networks began in the Five Eyes alliance. When it comes to technology policy, what the Five Eyes wants, the Five Eyes gets.

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