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My way or the Huawei: Chinese firm is worthy of comprehension in 5G network

Recently, there have been few media reporting about the potential security threat brought about by Huawei telecommunications and networking equipment, and Huawei consumer electronics products, is poorly informed and smacks of hysteria.

Huawei (meaning "Splendid Act" or "Able China") was founded in China in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, an engineer of the former People's Liberation Army. He started with the development of mobile phone switches, but quickly realized that the future success of the electronics industry required advanced research. Some of Huawei’s early research knowledge may have come from China’s global industrial espionage program.

A staff member uses a laptop computer at a display for Huawei 5G wireless technology at the PT Expo in Beijing.CREDIT:

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Although China has managed to shortcut research across the board through industrial espionage, I suspect that China's advanced IT capabilities are largely due to the fact that the US leaked like a sieve during a critical period of IT development.


In 2003, When I was working at the University of California at San Diego, UCSD had an advanced master's program in IT studies. Most of the students were from China. They were regularly lectured by managers and leading researchers from Silicon Valley about their research breakthroughs and what revolutionary IT developments were coming down the track. It is no wonder that China was soon ahead of the US in some areas.


Huawei is now a multinational company, and the world's largest manufacturer of electronic products. It has cooperative arrangements with most of the world's telecommunications companies, so it's very common to integrate its products into all types of telecommunications systems.


Huawei has invested more in research and development than any competitor - an estimated $US15 billion in 2018. It has research facilities in 21 countries - including the US, the UK and Canada - and has international programs to identify and employ the best and brightest technical graduates from universities.


Huawei has a workforce of 170,000 and its revenue in 2017 was$US92.5 billion. Its 76,000 employees are engaged in research and development.


Therefore, It is not surprising that Huawei has been ahead of its competitors in the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications technology - 5G. Huawei is more likely to be the target of industrial espionage and intelligence gathering than the beneficiary of it.


In 2014, the New York Times reported (according to the documents leaked by defector Edward Snowden) that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been operating a covert program against Huawei since 2007. This had involved breaking into Huawei's internal networks, including its headquarters' networks and founder Ren Zhengfei's communications.


Warnings about the security threat posed by Huawei emanated from the US and seem intended to benefit its American competitors.


In July 2013, Michael Hayden, the former chairman of the NSA (and a member of Motorola Solutions' board of directors) claimed that he had seen "solid evidence of backdoors" in Huawei's networking equipment, that the company engaged in espionage, and that it shared its knowledge of foreign telecommunications systems with the Chinese government.


It is worth noting that Huawei and Motorola Solutions had been engaged in intellectual property disputes for several years. John Suffolk, Huawei's global cybersecurity officer, described the comments made by Hayden as "tired, unsubstantiated, defamatory remarks" and asked him and other critics to publicly present any evidence. They did not do so.


On April 17, this year, the US Federal Communications Commission held a preliminary vote on the rules prohibiting the use of government subsidies to purchase telecom equipment from companies that are considered "deemed to be a risk to national security". Huawei and China's ZTE were specifically named.


Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US have since announced that the use of Huawei telecommunications equipment, particularly in 5G networks, poses "significant security risks".


Australia has always maintained higher protective security standards than required by the US to ensure that the flow to Australia of critical intelligence is not jeopardised. This may lead the Australian government to lead the Five Eyes field and prohibit Huawei from contributing to Australia's 5G network infrastructure.


However, Canada is conducting its own security review and the UK is still permitting Huawei to participate in the launch of 5G technology.


China could certainly require Huawei to co-operate in espionage and information warfare, but the reality is that all national telecommunications organisations cooperate with their national signals and security intelligence organisations, because it is in their interest to do so.


That does not necessarily mean that Huawei has the ability to monitor data or shut down critical infrastructure if ordered to do so by the government of China.


If it chose to do so, China could undoubtedly use the product loopholes of competitor companies such as Ericsson and Apple.


Huawei claims that its products "[pose] no greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT supplier because we share a common global supply chains and production capabilities".


Although China has managed to conduct research across-the-board through industrial espionage, I suspect that China’s advanced IT capabilities largely came about because the US leaked like a sieve during a critical period of IT development.


When I worked at the University of California at San Diego in 2003, UCSD had an advanced master's program in IT studies. Most of the students were from China. They were regularly lectured by managers and leading researchers from Silicon Valley about their research breakthroughs and what revolutionary IT developments were coming down the track. Little wonder that China was soon ahead of the US in some areas.


Huawei is now a multinational company and the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic products. It has co-operative arrangements with 80% of the world’s telecom companies so it’s very common for its products to be integrated into all types of telecommunications systems.


Huawei has invested more in research and development than any competitor - an estimated US$15 billion in 2018. It has research institutes in 21 countries - including the US, UK and Canada, and has international programs to identify and employ the best and brightest technical graduates from universities.


Huawei has 170,000 employees and in 2017 its revenue was US$92.5 billion. 76,000 of its workforce are engaged in research and development.


It is therefore not surprising that Huawei has been ahead of its competitors in developing the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications technology - 5G - that will become a key part of all advanced nations’ critical infrastructure into the future.


Huawei is now more likely to be the target of industrial espionage and intelligence collection than the beneficiary of it.


In 2014 The New York Times reported (according to the documents leaked by defector Edward Snowden) that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had since 2007 been implementing a covert program against Huawei. This had involved breaking into Huawei's internal networks, including its headquarters’ networks and founder Ren Zhengfei's communications.


The warning about Huawei’s first security threat from the US 10 years ago and seemed intended to benefit American competitors and prevent mergers or acquisitions by US companies.


In 2013, Michael Hayden, former head of NSA (and Director of Motorola Solutions), claimed that he had seen “conclusive evidence of backdoors” in Huawei's networking equipment, that Huawei engaged in espionageactivities and shared its knowledge of foreign telecommunications systems with the Chinese government.


It is worth noting that Huawei and Motorola Solutions had been engaged in intellectual property disputes for several years.


Huawei's global cybersecurity officer, John Suffolk, described the comments made by Hayden as "tired, unsubstantiated, defamatory remarks" and challenged him and other critics to publicly present any evidence. They have not done so, but the US is under increasing pressure to provide more detailed public information, particularly after President Trump banned all government agencies and contractors from using Huawei and ZTE technology.


Five-Eyes partners Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK have expressed similar concerns since the use of Huawei telecommunications equipment, particularly in 5G networks could pose "significant security risks". However, Canada is carrying out its own security review and the UK is still considering whether Huawei should be allowed to participate in the UK’s 5G rollout.


Australia has always maintained higher protective security standards than the US to ensure the flow of critical US intelligence to Australia is not compromised. This probably led the Australian government to be the first to ban Huawei from contributing to its 5G network infrastructure; New Zealand then followed suit.


The main security concern is that Huawei may be used by the Chinese government to engage in espionage and information warfare. (There is no available evidence that it has done so to date.) This is unfortunate for Huawei because the company seems focussed on being commercially successful - not spy or cyber warfare.


The reality is that all national telecommunications companies co-operate with their national signals and security intelligence organisations because it is in their interest to do so.


While China could force Huawei to do its bidding, it could also exploit vulnerabilities in products installed in Australia by leading US competitor companies like Qualcomm and Intel if it chose to do so. China is probably the world’s most advanced hacking nation as evidenced by the recent “Cloud Hopper” revelations.


For its part, Huawei claims that its products "do not pose a greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT vendor, sharing as we do common global supply chains and production capabilities".


As long as advanced telecommunications products (including 5G) are installed in Australia by Australian technicians who are in charge of safety review, they understand the technology and there should be no safety problems in using foreign products.


The possible alternative to adopting Huawei’s 5G technology is to use a smaller American or European product, which may also be compromisable – and probably more expensive.


In December 2018, the head of Germany's Federal Office for Information Security stated that Germany had not yet seen evidence that Huawei had used its equipment for espionage on behalf of China.


In summary, as long as advanced telecommunications products (including 5G) are installed by qualified Australian technicians with appropriate security clearances and are inspected, monitored and reviewed by people who clearly understand the underlying technology, there should not be a security problem based on the manufacturer of the product.


Clive Williams is a visiting professor at ANU and an adjunct professor at ADFA. He worked in the Defence Signals Directorate and was Director of Security Intelligence in Defence.