The Five Eyes Face the Huawei Challenge

Huawei, Chinese telecom
Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, is a security challenge for the Five Eyes.

[Inside the Five Eyes series: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 is below].

Once unknown, the Five Eyes is now coming into public view as supra-national surveillance service.

The Five Eyes track terrorists and smugglers. They coordinate drone strikes and disaster response. They have the ability to find, locate and surveil almost anyone in the world. The technological powers of the Five Eyes re unparalleled, its workings mostly secret.

Yet for all its vaunted powers, it is suddenly vulnerable, with U.S. intelligence officials fearful its capabilities could be compromised or neutralized by an unmanned insider threat: Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.

In 2018, the Australian representatives to the Five began to rally their counterparts against Huawei, which is building 5G networks in dozens of countries. These networks, which promise to expand internet capacity a hundred-fold, are key to future plans of many countries and companies. Disturbed by the possibility Huawei could build back doors into the West’s most sensitive telecommunications networks, three of the Five Eyes—Australia, U.S. and New Zealand—have banned Huawei from their broadband networks.

In May 2019  President Trump went further issuing an order to block or require conditions for any telecommunications transactions linked to a “foreign adversary,” defined as a country, company, or person “engaged in a long-term pattern or serious instances of conduct significantly adverse to” national security or to security and safety of U.S. citizens or businesses.

Huawei was not mentioned by name in Trump’s order, but the company is clearly its primary target. The firm’s chief financial officer, daughter of its founder, is under arrest in Canada and facing deportation to the United States on charges that Huawei violated sanctions on Iran. China says the charges are a pretext to take down an economic competitor.

The fear is that Huawei, in collaboration with China’s Ministry of State Security and People’s Liberation Army, could write code or insert chips into its products that would give China access to the Five Eyes most sensitive secrets and operations that would be impossible to detect.

 “Allowing Huawei’s inclusion in our 5G infrastructure could seriously jeopardize our national security and put critical supply chains at risk,” Sen. Mark Warner, a former tech entrepreneur, told The Verge in 2019. “…It could also undermine U.S. competitiveness at a time when China is already attempting to surpass the U.S. technologically and economically through the use of state-directed and state-supported technology transfers.”

Michael Hayden, CIA
Michael Hayden, former NSA director (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Huawei executives complain the United States is simply trying to protect the its global spying network. “Clearly the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks,” wrote Huawei chairman Gou Ping in the Financial Times, “the harder it becomes for NSA to ‘collect it all.’ …. Huawei hampers U.S. efforts to spy on whomever it wants.”

They also argue that U.S. firms are threatened by Huawei’s low prices and technological innovation. They liked to note that Huawei registered more patents than any company in the world last year, according to the United Nation’ World Intellectual Property Organization.

 “Hobbling a leader in 5G technology would erode the economic and social benefits that would otherwise accrue the countries that roll it out early,” Gou said. “The global campaign against Huawei has little to do with security, and everything to do with America’s desire to suppress a rising technological competitor.”

 Gen. Michael Hayden,  chief of the NSA from 1999 to 2005, all but conceded the point in a 2013 interview. “We’re in essence taking the lowest bidder out of the competition [by banning Huawei],” Hayden told an Australian interviewer. “But, frankly, this isn’t very hard for us to do in the security domain: I mean, it’s almost reflexive given what we believe.”

Allies Divided

Several key allies do not agree. In May 2019,  Jeremy Fleming, director of the GCHQ, said Huawei is “a hugely complex strategic challenge which will span the next few decades, probably our whole professional lives.” In this view, Huawei is a challenge that cannot be eliminated, only managed. The Canadian government has said it sees no need to exclude Huawei from the country’s 5G roll out. And at a meeting of NATO allies in April 2019, the German delegation joined the British in rebuffing the American demands on Huawei.

In response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We’ve made clear that if the risk exceeds the threshold for the United States, we simply won’t be able to share that information any longer.” 

There is no resolution to the Huawei issue in sight. In January 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided in January to allow Huawei into “non-sensitive parts” of the country’s 5G network, capping its involvement at 35%. This angered the United States, which wants to exclude Huawei from the West’s next-generation communications systems entirely.

Excluding Huawei from the Five Eyes supply chain will be difficult, given the differences between the United States and Great Britain, says Zak Dofman, CEO of a surveillance and security firm and columnist for Forbes.  “The UK has been living with Huawei for a long-time. They are expert in evaluating the security aspects of technology,” Dofman said in a phone interview. “They have a Huawei Cybersecurity Evaluation Center which is part of the GCHQ. They say the threat can be ‘mitigated.’”

If the U.S.-U.K. differences persist, Dofman said, “I suspect that the realpolitik of Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement will prevail. Given the importance of the Middle East, Russia, and the South China Sea in the world today, I don’t think you can see a severing of the partnership. I think the national intelligence people will find a way to muddle through.”

In other words, the Five Eyes may simply be too big to fail and too integrated into the global economy to exclude Huawei.

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