The Huawei thing

A few months ago I was asked for comment on the idea that an embattled Theresa May was about to approve Huawei for the UK’s 5G roll-out, and this was a major security risk. Politics, I assumed. No one who knew anything about the situation would worry, but politicians making mischief could use it to make a fuss.

Now it’s happened again; this time with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. And the same old myths and half-truths have appeared. So is Chinese company Huawei risky? Yes! And so is everything else.

Huawei was founded by a brilliant entrepreneurial engineer, Ren Zhengfei in 1987, to make a better telephone exchange. It came from the back to become the market leader in 2012. It also made telephones, beating Apple by 2018. While the American tech companies of the 1980’s grew old and fat, Huawei kept up the momentum. Now, in 2020, it makes the best 5G mobile telephone equipment. If you want to build a 5G network, you go to Huawei.

Have the American tech companies taken this dynamic interloper lying down? No. But rather than reigniting their innovative zeal, they’re using marketing and politics. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

Some arguments:

“Huawei is a branch of the evil Chinese State and we should have nothing to do with it.”

Huawei says it isn’t, and there’s no evidence to the contrary. The Chinese State supports Chinese companies, but that’s hardly novel. And whether the Chinese State is evil is a subjective judgement.

“Huawei is Chinese, and we don’t like the Chinese State or what it does”.

Really? So we should boycott American companies because we don’t like Trump or what he does then?

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“Huawei works for the Chinese secret service and will use the software in its equipment to spy on, or sabotage us.”

First off, Ren Zhengfei has made it very clear that he doesn’t. However, there have been suspicions. In order to allay them, Huawei got together with the UK authorities and set up the HCSEC in Banbury. Huawei actually gives HCSEC the source code to its products, so GCHQ can see for itself; look for backdoors and vulnerabilities. And they’ve found nothing untoward to date. Well, they’ve found some embarrassingly bad code but that’s hardly uncommon.

Giving us access to source code is almost unprecedented. No other major tech companies would hand over their intellectual property to anyone; we certainly have no idea what’s inside Cisco routers or Apple iPhones. But we do know what’s inside Huawei kit.

“Because Huawei manufactures its stuff in China, the Chinese government could insert spying stuff in it.”

Seriously? Cisco, Apple, Dell, Lenovo and almost everyone else manufacturers its kit in China. If the Chinese government could/would knobble anything it’s not just Huawei. This is a really silly argument.

Conclusion

So should we believe what the American’s say about Huawei? The NSA says a lot, but has offered no evidence whatsoever. The US doesn’t use Huawei anyway, so has no experience of it. In the UK, we do – extensively – and we have our spooks tearing the stuff apart looking for anything dodgy. If we believe our intelligence services, we should believe them when they say
Huawei is clean.

Being cynical, one might consider the possibility, however remote, that America is scared its technology companies are being bested by one Chinese competitor and will say and do anything to protect their domestic producers; even though they don’t have any for 5G. Or if you really like deep dark conspiracies, perhaps the NSA has a backdoor into American Cisco kit and wants to keep its advantage?

The US President’s animosity to trade with China is hardly a secret. Parsimony suggests the rest is fluff.

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