Huawei Punctuates Stormy Year of Cyber Distrust in UK

Huawei’s opening of a 5G innovation center in London in December is an attempt to draw a line under an uneasy year for the company in the UK, and in Europe as a whole.

The company has battled for – and won – contracts with major operators in the UK against a backdrop of controversy and governmental distrust.

In July 2018, Huawei UK’s own Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) published an annual report fretting over “shortcomings in Huawei’s engineering processes” that had “exposed new risks in the UK telecommunication networks and long-term challenges in mitigation and management.” Consequently, it could “provide only limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks have been sufficiently mitigated.”

The organization’s 2019 annual report in March last year was no more confident, arguing that Huawei hadn’t addressed the issues reported in 2018 and adding: “Further significant technical issues have been identified in Huawei’s engineering processes, leading to new risks in the UK telecommunications networks.”

BT, a Huawei user since 2003, reportedly began ripping the vendor’s kit from its core networks as early as 2016, and isn’t including the company as a vendor for its 5G core. In April, then-PM Theresa May reportedly vowed to ban Huawei from providing technology for the UK’s core 5G networks.

In July 2019, the UK’s Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee wrote to the Secretary Of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport drawing a distinction between core and non-core telecommunications systems. It found no technical grounds to completely exclude Huawei from the UK telecommunication system. On the other hand, it advised that the government should mandate Huawei’s exclusion from core telecommunications networks.

However, the Department’s long-awaited Telecoms Supply Chain Review, published a couple of weeks later, sidestepped the issue by not mentioning Huawei at all, which seemed to leave any exclusion of its kit as a voluntary measure. Instead, the government kicked the can down the road with another inquiry that wound up for the general election without reaching any conclusions.

The US has taken a much harder line, imposing new restrictions on American carriers that stop them buying products from suppliers on a new Federal Communications Commission blacklist that includes Huawei and ZTE. Huawei is suing.

China has responded with a protectionist measure nicknamed the 3-5-2 initiative that would remove non-Chinese tech hardware and software from government offices by 2022, in a move that threatens to expand the trade war across large parts of the international technology sector.

The US has repeatedly pressured Europe to turn its back on Huawei for its telecommunications infrastructure, threatening European countries and singling out Germany in particular. However, Germany has thumbed its nose at the US, with one spokesperson pointing out that it didn’t ban US companies when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA's spying activities.

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