The race to 5G

Lily Gibson-Dougall | Cyber Security Fellow


Before the new millennium, Huawei technologies was a relatively obscure company, whose business was largely focused within mainland China. Now when the cybersecurity community hears the name Huawei, it is immediately associated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and their mass surveillance networks.


As the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer with significant international investment projects, Huawei’s reputation has naturally evolved. However, the recent escalation of the trade war between the US and China, as well as their race to global technological hegemony, has meant that Huawei’s projects are clouded in controversy.


Nowhere is this more contentious than in Europe, where nations are being threatened by both the US and China to take a side in the race to 5G; the fastest and most accessible internet network to exist. So where has this controversy surrounding Huawei come from, and how does this impact the future of 5G infrastructure?


Credible allegations have been raised over Huawei stealing intellectual property from US companies, all of which have been denied. In addition, the Chinese legislation relating to privacy and data collection has no transparency or protection from an impartial oversight board, raising fears that Huawei could be coerced by the CCP into sharing data. These factors combined with Huawei’s status as the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer, have meant that significant attention is being paid to their emerging 5G infrastructure projects.


Over the past year, the US has been lobbying against the Chinese company, urging its allies to ban Huawei from contributing to new infrastructure projects. Within the US, this has meant that companies such as Google have had to pull their licensing with Android, preventing access to its core mobile software. To show their commitment to this position, those choosing to ignore the US have had their access to intelligence sharing threatened.


While the US has a set agenda for combatting the expansion of Huawei and minimising their exposure to the CCP’s cyber espionage capabilities, the story is not so straightforward for Europe. The US and allies such as Australia have largely relied upon alternative internet telecommunications companies to build their infrastructure since 2012. However, existing relationships between private European companies and Huawei mean that simply banning them from the 5G infrastructure market risks massively delaying projects, and threatening European export potential.


In light of the significant controversy caused by Huawei’s 5G infrastructure plans, the European Union (EU) has released a set of guidelines for how to deal with ‘high-risk’ vendors building 5G networks. While this does not specifically name Huawei as a threat, the company has one of the most contentious current positions within EU member states.


Reading between the lines therefore, we can see that these guidelines have been established as a means of assisting European nations to protect their national security, while also allowing fast and efficient development of 5G networks. In late January 2020, the United Kingdom (UK), to the disappointment of the US, ruled that they would allow Huawei to contribute to their networks, as they had yet to find evidence of malicious activity conducted by the company on the behalf of the Chinese Government.


The issue has been especially contentious in Germany, where Huawei has extensive relationships with Telefonica Deutschland, the second largest telecommunications company in Germany, as well as luxury car brands, VW and BMW. Throughout 2019, the issue of whether to allow Huawei access to building 5G networks was a major sticking point for the German Government. While the German intelligence community wanted to heed the US’ warnings, Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to balance threats of tariffs from the Trump administration as well as threats made by the Chinese ambassador to Germany: “If Germany were to make a decision that led to Huawei’s exclusion from the German market, there will be consequences.”


Is this complex and contentious issue solely based on credible privacy and security concerns? The fact that the US is also allowing Scandinavian tech companies like Ericsson and Nokia to contribute to 5G projects based upon their “big US presence”, suggests that a significant issue with Huawei’s emerging projects is the US’ lack of control. This raises the question of whether the US’ rhetoric is based solely on threats to national security, or if this is yet another battleground for China and the US to wage a war over global technological supremacy.


As technology continues to become more sophisticated, and even more integrated into both public and private infrastructure, we should be aware of how and where our information is being mined. And this does not only extend to ‘hostile’ or ‘overbearing’ governments. It is impossible to ignore the involvement of US companies including Facebook in mining data from their users, or the occurrence of major data breaches. Furthermore, the activities conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) as reported by Edward Snowden, highlight that the Western world is not immune from mass government surveillance.


The potential scale of Huawei’s 5G network, and the cyber security risks it would pose, should not be ignored. The surveillance actions of the Chinese government, particularly regarding minorities, is concerning. Therefore, as we head into the era of 5G and beyond, we’ll have to acknowledge the fact that balancing cyber security and international trade is rarely a simple issue.


Lily Gibson-Dougall is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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