Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has said the UK “won’t say no to us” in the rollout of 5G while simultaneously praising new PM Boris Johnson.
Zhengfei made the comments to Sky News as part of the latest intervention from Huawei’s founder amid debates over whether the company should be allowed to deploy its equipment in critical infrastructure.
Reports suggest the UK’s previous government, led by Theresa May, was minded to allow Huawei equipment in “non-core” parts of 5G infrastructure. Early indications suggest Johnson’s administration is listening more to US-led concerns around the security implications of allowing Huawei in national infrastructure.
Earlier this week, Telecoms reported on comments made by US national security advisor John Bolton during a visit to the UK.
“They [UK officials] said, in particular, they are looking really from square one on the Huawei issue. They were very concerned about not having any compromise in the security of telecommunications in the 5G space,” Mr Bolton told reporters.
In what could be seen as an attempt to sweeten up Britain’s new PM, Zhengfei praised Boris Johnson as a “very decisive” and “very capable” person. Zhengfei added the UK could become "a huge industrial power" by focusing on AI and genetics.
Johnson's government has been seen as aligning more with US policies ahead of Brexit as the UK continues to face an unwillingness from the EU to renegotiate a deal which has failed multiple times to pass in parliament.
The UK is part of the ‘five-eyes’ intelligence-sharing relationship which also consists of the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As such, the US is keen for the UK to limit any potential security threats. Chinese firms’ involvement with critical infrastructure will likely become a contentious issue in any post-Brexit trade negotiations with the US.
A series of scandals
A series of scandals – including the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, over allegations of misrepresenting a firm called Skycom as being separate to Huawei in order to flout US sanctions against Iran – hasn’t improved the company’s image in the West.
Just this week, a report in the WSJ revealed that a group of Huawei employees have been caught intercepting encrypted messages on behalf of the African government so that it can spy on its political opponents. The Huawei employees used software called ‘Pegasus’ to access the encrypted messages.
The WSJ report notes that Huawei executives in China weren’t aware of this activity taking place and the company says it’s "never been engaged in 'hack' activities".
It’s not the first time Huawei has been embroiled in such a scandal, even in Africa. In 2003, Huawei installed a network in the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A few months after, it was noted the network was most active long after staff had left – between midnight and 3am – and that Chinese trade envoys appeared to be suspiciously informed of the AU negotiators’ positions.
A French security company drafted in to examine Huawei’s equipment in the AU HQ found a number of software vulnerabilities had been sending data back to Beijing.
The UK maintains any final decision on the use of Huawei equipment will be based on its own national security reviews. All of the Chinese vendor’s telecoms gear is checked at the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in Banbury.
In his Sky News interview, Zhengfei said: "I think they won't say no to us as long as they go through those rigorous tests and look at it in a serious manner and I think if they do say no, it won't be to us."
Until last year, HCSEC reported it felt confident that security risks could be sufficiently mitigated. A follow-up report this year slammed Huawei as being slow to address concerns while even identifying more: “HCSEC's work has continued to identify concerning issues in Huawei’s approach to software development bringing significantly increased risk to UK operators, which requires ongoing management and mitigation”.
If Huawei doesn’t want the UK to “say no” to it, the company needs to be much better at addressing the concerns of both government and intelligence officials. Huawei also needs to do more to avoid finding itself in the middle of such high-profile scandals.
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