Can we manage the Huawei threat?

The Huawei story rumbles on, fuelled to a great degree by the leak from the National Security Council (NSC) and the subsequent sacking of Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Defence. In the minutes after the news broke, and again after Williamson’s sacking, I was approached by both the BBC and Sky News for comment. I duly obliged.

During the course of a fairly frantic couple of days I met many journalists and not a few other commentators, and many of them took the opposite view to me. That is, they immediately saw Huawei as a huge threat to national security. I don’t see it like that, but the situation is nuanced and complex, and I’m not sure the whole picture, nuances and all, can be put across in four minutes of live broadcasting. Hence me drafting this piece.

First things first. Huawei is a Chinese company and China remains a nation with a strong sense of its own foreign policy aims. Meaning, China First. That makes it potentially hostile to the UK, although as it becomes less communist through the encouragement of private sector innovation, it needs economically to continue to win overseas contracts and so that hostility is necessarily tempered. Overseas contracts like, for example, building nuclear power stations in the UK (and elsewhere).

In other words, we must not underestimate, nor overstate (if you’ll forgive the pun), the threat from China. We must also consider the fact that Huawei (and in fact ZTE, another Chinese company) have an existing, embedded and arguably essential role in the UK’s current telecoms infrastructure. Everyone has noticed – and ignored – the green boxes present on pretty much every street in the UK; these are our gateways to broadband and they have, almost entirely, Huawei technology within. Ditto the router in the corner of most houses, right now. Removing Huawei from that position would not be straightforward, nor quick, nor inexpensive.

National security trumps (another pun) all of those, of course. But pragmatism is a factor whether the purists like it or not; the truth is, we just can’t be without a telecoms network whilst we “cleanse” it of what may not need cleansing. Not only is it impractical, it is also economically damaging; I don’t mean we lose money, I mean we lose GDP, our innovation edge, and any technological lead we still enjoy.

And stepping back, what we are really talking about here is cyber security (perhaps meta cyber security, but that concept begins to hurt me; I’m a simple ex-government guy, after all). Cyber security is described in many ways, by many people, and has been made to mean (or perhaps not mean) many things. Done properly, cyber security is simply about risk management; understand the threat, assess it as it applies to you, and actively manage it (or not, if you can live with the threat). Manage, not avoid. My paragraphs above set out, albeit briefly, the assessment. I’ll cartoon it even more; yes, Huawei is a threat because it is Chinese, but we quite like the advantages it brings and the possibilities it offers. So, the question remains, can we manage the risk?

The UK believes the answer is yes. The National Cyber Security Centre believes the answer is yes. And I agree with them – indeed who am I to disagree? The Huawei cell is part of that risk management. The positioning of Huawei in parts of the 5G network (non-core only – although defining core/non-core is incomplete and does become fuzzier over time for 5G rather than 4G) is another part of risk management. The consideration of the issue at the NSC (though not the leaking of that discussion) is also part of that risk management. Arguably, this conversation is too. As I see it, few if any suppliers will ever have been so intensively risk managed as Huawei are now, and will be as long as they remain a part of our telecoms network.

The whole issue is now political of course. It is a part of the governing party of the UK choosing its next leader, before there is even a proper vacancy. It is a part of UKUSA too, we’re told; don’t we have to worry about the US cutting us out of the 5 Eyes partnership? For what it’s worth I doubt it very much; we have, as a nation, always (and actually) punched well above our weight in this partnership – it is not a partnership of equals. It is also a part of the US-China trade war. And perhaps an area which hasn’t yet been discussed as it might, it’s a part of the car crash that is the UK trying (perhaps) to leave the EU; whither “taking back control” and “global Britain” when, before we have actually left, we are being forced by another nation to choose between trading? How does it sit, in that context?

So, to summarise. Yes, Huawei is a threat, and already in fact a partner in our telecoms network. Can we manage the threat? The NSC seems to think so. I certainly don’t disagree.