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. I’m not a fan of communist regimes, but this is beside the point if you’re making an argument about technology.

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

So we should boycott American companies because we don’t like Trump? We do business with all sorts of regimes more odious that the CPC, so this is a non-argument. You could make a separate argument that we should cease trade with any country that isn’t a liberal democracy, but this could be difficult as we’re buying gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East.

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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.


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.

Why and how to hack a mobile phone

Anyone outraged that News of the Screws journalists have been “hacking” in to mobile ‘phones needs to get a grip on reality. They’re investigative tabloid journalists; what do you expect them to be doing?

To call it “hacking” is grossly overstating the case anyway – what they did required no technical knowledge other that that available in any playground in the country. All you need to do to retrieve people’s voice mail messages is dial their number, and when you get through to voice mail, enter the PIN. Most people leave the PIN as the system default.

You might argue that this is a gross breach of privacy and so forth. But it’s no more so than camping out on someone’s doorstep to see who goes in and out, following them, or tricking them into telling you something they wouldn’t if they knew your were a journalist.

New Labour was very keen to suppress the traditional liberties of the population in general and passed various dodgy laws to protect the lives of the guilty from prying journalists. In 2000, listening to other people’s voice mail was made a specific offence. “And quite right too!”. Wrong! It’s just another example of those in power making it difficult for us to check up on what they’re doing. We have (or had) a free press with a tradition of snooping on politicians, criminals and anyone else they wanted to using whatever means, as long as it was “In the public interest”.

Journalists are also out to sell papers, so the “public interest” defence is often strained to its limit, or broken. However, it should remain as a defence in a court of law and people should be able to argue their case there. It should be all about intent. But New Labour had other ideas.

People are uneasy about voice mail because it’s technological, so lets look at another example.

Suppose a journalist was camped outside someone’s house, noting down who came in and out. Another invasion of privacy, but right or wrong?

Well that depends – if it’s some innocent person then the journalist will probably end up throwing the notes away, so no harm done. If someone uses information collected in this way in the pursuance of a crime (e.g. Blackmail), that’s another matter, but journalists don’t do that.

Now supposing the journalist is investigating a suspected terrorist, and checking up to see who they’re associating with – or even a politician associating with a known crook. Clearly this information in the public interest.

It’s all about intent.

You could argue that investigations of this nature shouldn’t be carried out by private individuals but should be left to the security forces. That argument doesn’t bear scrutiny for more than a couple of seconds. The public needs the right to snoop as well as the government agents – anything else is known as a ‘police state’

As to the current difficulties – anyone who knows anything about the press will tell you that these and many other tricks are employed as a matter of course, although journalists won’t make a big noise about using them. It’s conceivable that an editor like Andy Coulson would neither know nor care exactly what his investigation teams were doing to come up with the information; you don’t ask. It’s also inconceivable that only the hacks on the News of the World had thought of it. Sources need protection.

It’s clearly a political stunt by old new Labour. Could they be upset that the press, including Mr Coulson’s old rag, turned against them? They used to be friends with the News of the World. At the time of the original scandal, it appears that the first politician to call Andy Coulson to commiserate with him about having to resign was none other than Gordon Brown. Apparently he went on to suggest that someone with his talent would soon find another job where he could make himself useful. (Source: Nick Clegg at today’s PMQs).