PERSPECTIVE: The Threat Huawei Poses

This article, by Tom Ridge, originally appeared in Real Clear World on June 25, 2019.

U.S. allies are considering the risks for 5G security of using Huawei equipment. Earlier this month the British Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee held a hearing on the matter. It remains clear that the risks posed by Huawei are not limited to the insufficient technical expertise the company possesses, but more importantly it is the threat that Chinese technology companies pose to our national security, and the security of our allied nations.

Given what’s at stake with 5G, the concerns over Huawei as a potential security risk are more than justified. Over the next several years, the United States and much of the world will begin the transition to 5G networks. 5G will not only revolutionize our economy by enabling the Internet of Things, it will also deliver spectacular innovations in healthcare, transportation, and the power sector. 5G-powered smart grids, telemedicine, autonomous vehicles, and other advancements will dramatically improve productivity and energy efficiency, but we need to make sure that the network upon which these technologies are delivered is completely secure. On this score, Huawei provides little comfort. This is an issue I first raised in 2018 in regards to the vulnerability of our power grid due to solar inverters manufactured by Huawei.

Huawei executives continue to claim that the company is not beholden to the Chinese government and operate independently of it — going so far as offering a “no-spy agreement” to the UK government. But as evidenced in this month’s hearing, Huawei executives are not being truthful about their relationship with the Chinese – despite testifying that “[t]here are no laws in China that obligate [Huawei] to work with the Chinese government,” Chinese law states otherwise.

In 2017, China passed a National Intelligence Law that gives the country’s security apparatus complete control over the information collected by Chinese companies operating within China and abroad. This includes Huawei and the information they collect over their networks.

Understanding that there is no relationship with Huawei without a relationship with the Chinese government, we should aggressively push back on companies like Huawei, and I agree with the Trump Administration’s decision to ban Huawei from U.S. networks. State-controlled companies conducting unauthorized surveillance on the public is anathema to a free society like ours. They cannot be allowed to do so.

However, banning Huawei from our own networks doesn’t fix the global problem we face. Not all of our allies are ready to join the United States in completely banning Huawei, and so we need additional solutions — including alternatives to outright bans — to secure our citizenry and our way of life.

Fortunately, our own U.S. companies and others around the world are innovating in how we build and manage the networks of the future. One of the key areas of focus has been on ensuring that we maintain a competitive global supply chain. A group called the ORAN Alliance, made up of the world’s leading operators, network providers, and equipment manufacturers, is advocating for open networks and network interoperability as an intelligent path forward. The concept of bringing “openness” and “intelligence” to the Radio Access Network (RAN) – the part of the network that connects your cell phone with the central brain or “core” of the network – supported by ORAN will encourage the use of smart open source technology in future cellular networks. Moving toward open, interoperable networks will encourage competition and innovation, it will provide additional layers of network security, and most importantly, it will defend against one provider gaining monopoly control over portions of 5G and future-generation networks globally.

Proposals like the one being championed by ORAN provide the United States and our allies with more optionality in dealing with threats and building the networks of the future. And openness is a good thing.

The risk of our allies doing business with a company that we cannot trust — or one like Huawei that is beholden to a country rife with human rights violations — is a threat to our national security. For well over 70 years the United States and the United Kingdom have been military allies. The relationship has included intelligence sharing that has protected both of our nations from attack. Huawei compromising our communications networks puts this relationship in jeopardy. It’s time for the United Kingdom to consider the larger risks of doing business with the Chinese and push for alternatives when developing their 5G network.

Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and the nation’s first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. He is an advisor to Global Cyber Policy Watch. The views expressed are the author’s own.