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Important to block ‘high-risk’ vendors like Huawei from 5G infrastructure, says Australia’s cyber affairs ambassador

Screenshot from ORF event on international 5G conflict.
Screenshot from ORF event on international 5G conflict.

Should all countries ban Chinese tech from their respective 5G infrastructure? Does Chinese 5G tech really pose threats to the national security of other countries? Panelists speaking at an event at CyFy, an annual cybersecurity conference organised by think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), seemed to agree on both these questions.

Tobias Feakin, Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology, felt that it was imperative of countries to block “high-risk” vendors such as Huawei from working on their 5G infrastructure, in spite of an initial increase in costs. He said that countries can’t work with a companies they don’t have any “faith” in.

Izabel Albrycht, chair of the Poland-based NGO Koscciuszko Institute, signalled that “like-minded” countries — democracies — such as the US, EU-NATO countries would do well to prevent companies like Huawei from snooping in their jurisdictions. It is in these countries’ best interests to address their dependence on Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies, she felt.

Meanwhile, Cuihong Cai, professor, Center for American Studies, Fudan University was the sole Chinese participant in the panel, who defended Huawei, noting that there is no evidence to suggest that the company is indeed working hand-in-glove with Chinese intelligence. Cuihong also claimed that the international pressure on Chinese “high-tech” is leading to domestic innovation.

A bit of background: Chinese tech companies have been under immense pressure all over the world due to suspicions of their working with the Chinese intelligence and military. The US has designated Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE as “national security threats”. The two companies, along with their affiliates, were also added to the US Department of Commerce’s “Entity List”, which prohibits them from importing or exporting American technology.

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India was recently involved in border clashes with China, after which it banned 224 Chinese-owned apps including TikTok, PUBG, Camscanner, Shein, Clash of Kings and WeChat citing “national security” reasons. On 5G, while both Huawei and ZTE are currently allowed to participate in trails, the government is said to be reconsidering this decision. The Indian government is yet to take an official decision on the matter.

Australia pulled the plug on Huawei ahead of others

Australia was one of the earliest countries to ban “high-risk” tech from Huawei and ZTE in the country’s 5G infrastructure in August 2018 (the US only did so in May 2019). Ambassador Feakin explained the decision was taken entirely on the basis of national security considerations, mainly due to the fact that 5G would eventually become the the “most important infrastructure” investment in the near future. He said that 5G architecture would eventually underpin the economy, hence it needed to be secure.

Feakin went on to say that Australia had looked at risk mitigation from a cybersecurity point of view but nothing held up. “The fact that you can’t really separate the core and the periphery in a 5G network, the whole thing is a ubiquitous network — you can’t really section it off in the same way. Therefore to bring a high-risk vendor in would essentially be akin to giving away the keys to your car.”

Feakin, however, claimed that the 5G tech ban was country-agnostic and vendor-agnostic. “China is still one of key trading partners, and we still have a tremendous amount of exchange that goes on [with them],” he said.

‘EU and USA have similar views on the matter’

When asked about the European Union’s stance on the subject, Albrycht admitted that the bloc is facing enormous pressure from the United States to impose widespread restrictions on Huawei and other Chinese tech companies. However, she indicated that this was largely in the EU’s interest, irrespective of the politics.

Albrycht said that that in her home country of Poland, as well as many EU countries, there is a huge dependence on Huawei equipment. “This is a problem. In fact, we are facing the possibility of national dependence on a single supplier. This is something we need to change despite the politics around [Huawei].”

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Albrycht took the example of her country Poland, where only one of the four main operators is apparently free of Huawei tech. In the other three operators, Huawei supposedly supplies 80% of all 4G equipment. “This lack of diversity is not a wise strategy. So definitely, a 5G anchoring in Huawei’s 5G and LTE should be diminished anyway […] We should not let the lack of diversification ahppen again. It is in our internal interests to be more diversified.”

The EU had allowed its member states to use 5G equipment from high-risk vendors but they would have to have strict regulation to counter potential national security threats. The UK pivoted from its initial position and has now said that telecom equipment from Huawei will be phased out of its 5G infrastructure by 2027.

The Chinese version: ‘No proof of wrongdoing on Huawei’s part’

Cuihong from Fudan University in Shanghai was the sole Chinese member of the panel. She defended characterisations of Huawei as a “national security threat”, calling it wrong. She said it is a misconception that Huawei has a “cozy relationship” with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “Huawei is not a state-owned company, but a private one. Huawei, in its own statements, has said that they hope to reduce interference of political actors on 5G,” she said. She added that Chinese companies operate in countries all over the world, and they do so in accordance to the law there. “There is no confirmed evidence of Huawei’s security threat”.

Gautam Chikermane, vice president of ORF and the moderator, questioned Cuihong, saying that all Chinese companies were bound to follow the country’s National Security Law, which compels them to collect and share intelligence with the government. Cuihong sidestepped the question and instead referred to China’s latest initiative on global data security.  She said the initiative prohibits companies and individuals from collecting data from other countries through companies or individuals without said countries’ permission.

  • The negatives and ‘positives’: Cuihong said that the worldwide pressure does cause negative impacts on Chinese technology. She said that because of the controversies, Chinese companies are facing trouble getting into many countries. From a market share perspective, she said, this a negative. But there are positive effects too. She said that Chinese companies are now being forced to develop their own support and supply systems. “When US banned some suppliers from Huawei’s chain, the company started developing its own core tech. This [pressure] will promote another kind of technology development [in China].”

Why should Chinese surveillance bother EU more than American?

One of the members of the audience asked Albrycht why Chinese surveillance bothers EU more than American surveillance, with respect to 5G. Albrycht’s reasoning was largely that countries in the EU and US are “like-minded” (read: democracies), hence it was necessary for them to work together on all matters tech. “We need to work together on related problems like surveillance, risk and threats,” she said.

Initial increase in cost outweighs long-term effect

Meanwhile, Feakin said that the decision to ban “high-risk vendors” such as Huwawei is one that every country has to take on its own, based on its factors such as cost and other internal sovereign matters. However, he argued, considering cost as the biggest factor is a risky proposition.

Feakin explained that it is easy to choose to allow high-risk vendors who would sell infrastructure at comparatively lower costs. However, this doesn’t take into account the fact that the country might later have to spend a lot of resources to secure the network, that might even not even “securable”. Explaining Australia’s example, he said, “It was a difficult decision, but it needs leadership to be thinking 5-10 years down the line, rather than the instant sugar hit of cheaper providers.”

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‘India needs to get into 5G game’

Subrata Kumar-Mitra, head of Ericsson’s government and industry relations, said it was important for India to embark on building its 5G infrastructure at the earlier. “5G is not being seen as purely a communication technology. There is an interplay between 5G and the industrial component of the economy,” he said.

Mitra argued that 5G would be transformative for not just regular consumers but for many sectors of the economy, such as transport, logistics, manufacturing and so on. This is why, he said, countries that have strengths in sectors that can be helped by 5G are working on building and modernising their telecom infrastructure at a rapid pace.

At the same time, Mitra emphasised on the need for more clarity from the government. He said that India still doesn’t have a “road map” for 5G spectrum. Only when is made public, he said, will the country be able to look at efficient rollout of 5G.

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