Despite U.S. spying warnings, Huawei 5G reportedly gets U.K. approval

The U.K. gave the Chinese company approval despite concerns over poor software quality and potential spying backdoors

A pedestrian talks on the phone while walking past a Huawei Technologies Co. store on January 29, 2019, in Beijing, China. The United Kingdom has reportedly approved Huaewi Technologies to build some parts of the country's 5G telecom network.  (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Theresa May last week reportedly approved China’s Huawei Technologies to build some parts of the country’s 5G telecom network despite concerns about the company’s poor software quality and dangers of potential spying backdoors that could funnel information to Beijing.

At a meeting last week of the U.K.’s National Security Council, led by May, the decision to allow Huawei to proceed with supplying parts of the 5G network, including antenna and other non-core elements, was taken despite opposition from key cabinet ministers, The Telegraph reported, citing unnamed sources.

Although there is no official confirmation of such a decision, the leak and publication of a still secret deliberation is being investigated, the BBC reported Thursday. The BBC also said a formal decision wouldn’t be made until the end of spring.

Britain’s decision on Huawei’s participation in the country’s 5G network is being closely watched around the world as the United States has mounted a furious campaign to deny Huawei a foothold in one of Washington’s closest allies. U.S. officials, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, have said if London decides to proceed with Huawei’s equipment, intelligence cooperation between the two countries could be undermined.

U.S. officials and lawmakers have said Huawei is closely linked to China’s military and intelligence services and that allowing the company to build 5G networks would be tantamount to letting Beijing in on top Western secrets.

Australia has banned Huawei from building the country’s 5G networks, while other close U.S. intelligence partners including Canada and New Zealand have yet to reach a conclusion. Germany has said it would outright ban Huawei.

Days before The Telegraph’s story on the U.K. decision, The Times of London, citing an unnamed source, said the CIA had provided the U.K. with intelligence information showing Huawei had taken money from China’s People’s Liberation Army, China’s National Security Commission and a branch of the country’s intelligence apparatus.

The question of how Huawei got started and who funded its efforts remains murky. In an in-depth investigation of Huawei’s origins, the Los Angeles Times said its reporters were given the names of five investors who helped Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei raise about $5,000 in capital in 1987. Huawei told the LA Times the investors then withdrew their stake by 2000.

But, the Los Angeles Times said it could not find any of the five original investors whose names were provided by Huawei.

U.S. officials say Ren was a top ranking Chinese intelligence official and Huawei’s rise has been backed by government contracts. Huawei continues to be privately held and the company has said the stock is owned by its employees. Huawei has dismissed U.S. allegations about the company’s ties to Beijing.

Separately, the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center in March issued an assessment that said Huawei cannot be counted on to make equipment without bugs and security gaps.

The assessment also concluded that “Huawei’s software component management is defective, leading to higher vulnerability rates and significant risk of unsupportable software.”

Huawei has not demonstrated it can adhere to its own internal guidelines on secure software coding processes, the report said. The company continued to use versions of a software code, which is used to encrypt data flowing between web servers, that had vulnerabilities publicly identified as far back as 2006, the report said.

Having the U.K. assess Huawei’s software code and processes “is a good thing for us because it helps us focus on what we need to do to provide greater assurances and transparency,” Andy Purdy, the chief security officer for Huawei USA, told CQ in an interview. The British government’s evaluation is the “toughest and the most rigorous in the world,” Purdy said.

Other telecom providers should be subjected to similar evaluations, Purdy said. The U.K. assessment made no mention of Huawei’s ties to China.

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