UK Reviewing Telecom Suppliers’ Security Risks, Especially Huawei

About to be banned
Huawei telecom equipment (Photo: Huawei)

The increased scrutiny of Huawei Technologies Co, Ltd, and the alleged national security dangers it poses to the countries it does business in, now manifests in the United Kingdom.

Huawei is the world's largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer. It is also the world's second largest smartphone maker after Samsung.

Huawei was founded by Ren Zhengfei, a former officer in the People's Liberation Army. It's a multinational networking, telecommunications equipment, and services company based in Shenzhen. These facts alone and its vast worldwide reach leave Huawei a target for suspicion in the Western world.

In April, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) banned the sale of Huawei smartphones in retail outlets inside U.S. military bases worldwide. DoD is concerned these Chinese-made devices are an unacceptable security risk because they have components that can spy on their users.

A Pentagon spokesman said Huawei devices (and those from ZTE Corporation) may pose an unacceptable risk to the department's personnel, and mission. In light of this information, the Pentagon said it isn't prudent for DoD exchanges to continue selling Huawei devices.

And in October, Australia banned Huawei from taking part in the mammoth project to build Australia's nationwide 5G mobile network.

Australia's spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), said Australia's new 5G network is too important to put at risk with foreign involvement. It noted that if high-risk vendor equipment such as those from Huawei is used anywhere in Australia's evolving 5G network, the future communications system underpinning the country's strategically important systems can't be protected. Australia's water supply, electricity grid, and health systems will also be at risk from Huawei spy equipment.

And yesterday, the United Kingdom, which used to do business with Huawei, has suddenly made an abrupt about-face out of national security concerns. The government of British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced it will review firms (including Huawei) doing business in the UK's telecommunications-equipment market.

Political pundits believe this unexpected move will boost the government's scrutiny of Huawei.

Last month, the government sent a letter to telecom firms (including cellular and internet providers) saying it will review whether the UK is too reliant on a single hardware provider. The letter didn't single out any specific company by name, but executives at businesses that received the letter said it was clear to them Huawei is the target of this review.

The new review is expected to be completed in six months. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, which is handling the review, said it wasn't targeting any one company or any single country.

This sudden change of direction stands in stark contrast to the past when the UK welcomed Huawei and its technologies.  Huawei's cheap smartphones are popular in Britain. Huawei is also one of Britain's biggest buyers of its telecom equipment used in wireless networks.

All of Britain's major wireless and internet providers use Huawei technologies or services. Huawei is the dominant provider of the equipment used specifically to provide commercial internet traffic across the country.

Britain's wariness of Huawei isn't new, however. In July, the government said one of its panel reviews found engineering deficiencies in Huawei gear that "exposed new risks" for carriers using Huawei products.

Last month, ASD raised concerns about the ability to manage the risk of using more Chinese-supplied equipment in the UK's infrastructure. Continuing to do so will undermine existing mitigations, said ASD. Government departments are also reviewing the security of the U.K. telecom supply chain.

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