Should the UK Ban Huawei?

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The debate over Chinese tech giant Huawei’s presence in the UK rages on and it seems that the arguments for a US-style, outright ban are becoming more persuasive.

The situation looks to be going from bad to worse for Huawei, and attempts to disassociate itself from Western suspicion of the Chinese state are falling on deaf ears. Illustrating this point was the launch of a new report from policy think tank Henry Jackson Society that recommended the government completely block Huawei from involvement in the UK’s 5G rollout.

The report, which included a strongly worded foreword from ex-head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove, argued that the government’s current strategy of attempting to manage the risks associated with Huawei is leaving us vulnerable.

Is shutting the door to one of world’s major technology players the right thing to do? It’s a more complex question than it first appears and, for the UK at least, I would argue that an outright ban isn’t the best approach. 

Keep your friends close
If Huawei is indeed an extension of the Chinese state, as many say it is, a ban would reduce our ability to monitor China and diminish our understanding of its true cyber capabilities. In the long-run this could see us well behind the game and unable to build effective counter-measures to defend against future state-sponsored attacks.

Perhaps the best example that supports this argument is the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), set up by the British Government in 2010 to vet Huawei devices for security risks before they go on sale in the UK. 

In eight years, the center has never found a significant vulnerability or so-called ‘backdoor’ through which China could infiltrate and disrupt the UK’s tech ecosystem. However, what it has been able to deliver is an unparalleled level of insight into the inner-workings of the company and its culture – incredibly valuable intelligence if we are to continue managing the potential risk posed by China’s presence in our digital economy. 

If we were to ban Huawei devices from the UK, there would be no need for the HCSEC and we would lose the insight it provides. The same principle applies to 5G – shutting Huawei out completely keeps us in the dark, sealing a potentially useful window into the company’s relationship with its government. 

There’s no business like no business
An outright ban would also have a significant impact on businesses as well. There are numerous suppliers to Huawei based in the UK so severing ties to the company could cause them serious disruption.  

Even for the technology industry’s biggest players, shutting Huawei out could have unintended consequences. 

Google’s block on the use of Android apps on Huawei devices, for example, could force the Chinese company into developing more of its own applications. Practically speaking, it’s also unlikely to stop Huawei users from accessing Google programs through the phone’s web browser or third-party mail apps.

The block could become counter-productive, particularly if Google stops supporting security updates for the versions of Android currently operating on Huawei devices. This could leave users exposed and more prone to attack.

After the horse has bolted
A final, and more general, point is that 5G is only one element of Huawei’s role in the Western tech industry – albeit a potentially very significant one. Huawei devices are already well-engrained into our technology environment. What’s more, the phenomenal amount of white-labelling that happens in the industry means that Chinese components – Huawei or otherwise – can be found in all manner of devices ostensibly produced in more ‘trustworthy’ countries. 

If the Chinese state’s grip on its own technology industry is as tight as some believe, then Huawei’s 5G technology is by no means its only access point into the UK. Therefore, a ban on Huawei 5G risks being little more than a sticking plaster.

Instead, I believe the government should stick to its guns and maintain a more measured and moderate approach. We should, under no circumstances, downplay the potential consequences of a laissez-faire relationship with China. But we also need to acknowledge that doing business in a global economy will always come with an element of risk. 

Shutting ourselves off from significant parts of that economy – like Huawei, like China – stops us reaping the benefits of it. As importantly, it prevents us from analyzing and fully understanding the ever-evolving cyber threats we face from nation states around the world and building adequate defenses.

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