Crunch time for UK’s Huawei 5G ban decision (again)

By Robert Scammell

The UK’s decision whether to ban Huawei technology from its 5G mobile phone networks is entering a crucial period, with the government expected to reach its verdict in a matter of weeks.

Head of MI5 Andrew Parker yesterday downplayed US warnings that the two country’s intelligence relationship would suffer if Huawei equipment continued to be installed in Britain’s 5G infrastructure.

Parker’s comments come as US government officials flew to the UK today to launch a last-ditch attempt to persuade British security officials to ban the Chinese telecommunications giant.

Huawei has faced sustained allegations of espionage, largely from the US, which stems from Huawei’s close ties with the Chinese state.

The Trump administration has warned that the Chinese government could instruct Huawei to introduce “backdoors” into its technology. Huawei has denied all allegations of espionage and offered to sign a “no spy agreement” with companies adopting its tech.

Kicking the can on Huawei ban

The UK was originally due to announce its Huawei 5G ban decision almost a year ago but has repeatedly pushed back making a final judgement. In this time, mobile operators such as Vodafone have continued to install Huawei 5G kit, which experts say is well made and cheaper than alternatives.

Last year plans drawn up by Theresa May’s government to ban Huawei from providing “core” parts of the UK’s 5G network were leaked, resulting in the sacking of defence secretary Gavin Williamson.

But a new prime minister and a Conservative majority government appears to have disrupted any prior plans and added to the delay.

British defence secretary Ben Wallace confirmed on Sunday “how aggressive the Trump administration has been about Huawei”.

The US has blacklisted Huawei technology and sought to pressure its allies into banning Huawei from their mobile networks. So far Australia is the only country to implement an outright ban. Germany and France have so far resisted barring the firm, while New Zealand has implemented a partial block.

But despite intense US lobbying, Parker said in an interview with the Financial Times that he had “no reason today to think that” US-UK intelligence sharing would be adversely affected should the UK decide to press ahead with Huawei 5G equipment.

“Huawei can be seen as a Brexit canary”

One former senior British intelligence officer told Verdict that he agreed with Parker’s comments.

“The UK-USA relationship will survive Huawei, whatever the UK government decides; it is long-forged and genuinely mutually beneficial,” said Malcolm Taylor, now director of cybersecurity at consultancy ITC Secure.

“The US government understands the value the UK brings and we should not conflate that with any particular administration or passing ideology.”

However, he added that “pressure is high at the moment” and that “Huawei can be seen as a Brexit canary”, providing an early indication about the US and UK’s trading relationship after Britain formally leaves the EU at the end of January.

Taylor added: “Will the government cave in to this administration, in the face of contrary advice from UK intelligence services?

“I have said all along that I think the lack of viable alternatives means that Huawei will have a place in the UK’s 5G networks – I stand by that. But it is political, and so right now anything is possible.”

Read more: “No smoking gun” but Huawei security threat too great to ignore, warns report