BusinessDay

Huawei’s 5G dominance: A brewing global security crisis?

In 2019, a study uncovered information showing that former US President Donald Trump may have made the right decision in imposing a ban on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei for reasons of national security.

The study, carried out by Professor Christian Balding of Fulbright University Vietnam and the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think-tank, revealed deep links between some of the company’s key staff and Chinese military intelligence – information Huawei had never disclosed before.

According to the report, 11 Huawei staff attended the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Information Engineering University, which is widely known as China’s hub for information warfare research. In at least one instance, a current employee of the company held a dual role with the Chinese government entity directly responsible for overseeing the country’s espionage and counterintelligence efforts.

Was Trump right after all? It depends

Without releasing any identifying information, the study claimed that an individual working at Huawei as an Engineer, according to his CV, is also a representative of the Ministry of State (MSS), which is responsible for China’s political security and foreign intelligence. It will be recalled that this is exact conflict of interest scenario that informed America’s unprecedented ban on use of devices and network infrastructure made by Chinese tech firms including Huawei and Trassion for US government officials.

For those who do not understand the significance of this scenario, let us put it this way. If the company at the cutting-edge of 5G development is fully in bed with the Chinese government to the extent described in the study, then it can safely be assumed that 5G networking equipment provided by Huawei will almost certainly have inbuilt Chinese intelligence back doors.

Speaking with the press at the time, Professor Balding stated that the only reason he could not categorically say the Chinese government had ordered Huawei to intercept information was the absence of physical evidence such as an email or a voice recording.

According to him, however, after reviewing over 25,000 Huawei specific CVs, he could say that there is a great amount of circumstantial evidence linking Huawei and the Chinese state intelligence apparatus.

Presumably, from an African point of view, just having 5G connectivity at all, along with the possibility for economic expansion, global integration and leapfrogging that comes with it, is worth the potential tradeoff for Chinese espionage access

In his words: “The CVs do talk of behaviour such as information interception and we know of instances where a Huawei employee holds a dual position in the PLA Strategic Support Force, which oversees the electronic warfare and similar non-traditional warfare units. So I cannot say it has been ordered, but the inference of positions and behaviour they mention on their CVs appears to indicate they do engage in these acts.”

Hauwei’s response is a dead giveaway

Reacting to the study, Ed Brewster, a Huawei spokesman, dismissed its findings, claiming that the presence of ex-government staff on Huawei’s employee roster is only a coincidence. He stated, “We reiterate that Huawei does not work on military or intelligence projects for the Chinese Government. It is also not unusual that Huawei, in common with other tech companies around the world, employs people who have come from public service and worked in government. We are far more competitive, thanks to our colleagues’ previous experiences.”

Tellingly, Brewster also claimed that Huawei’s recruitment process for people who formerly worked in the government specifically includes investigation to make sure that they have cut off all ties with the government. Exactly how Huawei can be sure of that in a centrally planned, authoritarian country like China is anybody’s guess. Expectedly, Chinese media with close ties with the central government also leapt to Huawei’s defence, breaking journalistic conventions to describe the study as “ridiculous and malicious.”

Read also: Huawei, Xiaomi owners are early gainers as MTN 5G service goes live

Perhaps, even more tellingly, Brewster chose to focus exclusively on Huawei’s ex-government employees, completely avoiding the issue of current Huawei employees with concurrent roles in the Chinese government – even though the study explicitly mentioned that as one of its findings.

Apart from possibly vindicating the hardline position adopted by the US on the subject, what this study also did was to potentially help inform the decisions of other countries currently weighing the trade-off between 5G adoption using Huawei infrastructure and risking national security. While the UK has chosen to adopt a less hardline approach – instead, giving itself a number of years to wean itself off Huawei’s near-total domination of its physical 5G network infrastructure, countries in the Global South such as Nigeria have not expressed any position on the matter whatsoever.

Presumably, from an African point of view, just having 5G connectivity at all, along with the possibility for economic expansion, global integration and leapfrogging that comes with it, is worth the potential tradeoff for Chinese espionage access. Beggars cannot be choosers and all of that. For now, that might be a sensible position to adopt until our more important economic problems are addressed. When that time comes, however, this issue must be revisited.

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