Artillery Row

Four Eyes or Six?

Huawei’s private sector implications are being overlooked

Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz recently questioned the UK’s future role in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing partnership in the light of the British Government’s decision to continue allowing the Chinese company Huawei access to its 5G network. He joined Donald Trump in criticising the decision and ominously remarked that ‘four eyes are better than six eyes’, at least, if that extra eye is looking in the wrong direction. The government’s decision is no doubt motivated by the desire to show the world that Britain is ‘open for business’, to fill the gap left by decades of dependence on the European Union. Yet the effect of this decision may be exactly the opposite of what is intended: it promises to alienate the UK’s largest non-EU trading partner and underestimates the interrelation of economic and military questions in a world where cyber-attacks and IP theft have become a proxy for armed conflict.

Those who support the government’s position of allowing Huawei a market share of up to 35%, point out that commercial 5G networks are separated from the classified systems like JWICS or IC Reach on which intelligence materials are exchanged. This is true, yet there cannot have been many who thought our leaders so foolish as to place servers heaving with classified information directly in the hands of a company founded by the deputy director of the engineering corps of the People’s Liberation Army. Such discussion misunderstands the kind of threat posed by Huawei which may be directed toward civilian targets but remains a question of national security.

The documents disclosed by Edward Snowden in 2013 give snapshot of discussions about the Chinese company within the intelligence community, a rare insight into conversations that take place in soundproofed rooms without windows. They have much to say about Chinese espionage and information warfare, but this has generally been overlooked when compared with the alarming revelations about and mass surveillance from our own government.

What has prompted the other Five Eyes nations to deny Huawei access to their networks? One NSA document expresses a concern a concern that: ‘Huawei’s widespread infrastructure will provide the PRC with SIGINT capabilities and enable them to perform denial of service type attacks.  Though the threat of espionage features extensively in the public discussion, little attention has been paid to the threat of a ‘denial of service’ attack, the ability to deliberately shut down key parts of civilian infrastructure, bringing the nation to its knees. The importance of this concern is highlighted by the author’s citation to further discussion in the ‘Nation Intelligence Estimate’, a classified assessment prepared for senior policy makers by the Director of National Intelligence. Any modernised military will be logistically reliant on private companies for much of their unclassified network traffic but more than this, a military will always depend upon the economic wellbeing of the nation. A denial of service attack could allow an adversary to disrupt and degrade our capacity to wage war without interfering with classified networks by causing financial mayhem at politically opportune moment. Keeping Huawei away from nuclear powerplants and other sensitive sites is not enough when the capacity to disable more than a third of the nation’s 5G coverage alone constitutes a threat to national security.

There are grounds for resisting Chinese mercantilism in favour of Huawei with a counter-mercantilism of our own

With China’s population advantage a given, Western military doctrine depends upon maintaining technological superiority. Espionage has been an effective means for the Chinese state to diminish this advantage. The Snowden documents show how serious the situation was as early as 2013. One document from an NSA counter-espionage program, codenamed ‘BYZANTINE HADES’, estimated that the amount of data compromised from DOD systems amounted to five libraries of congress and had cost the taxpayer over $100 million. We simply do not know the current extent of industrial espionage conducted by the China but it is likely to have grown in the past decade. NSA documents show that Huawei is more than just a ‘high risk vendor’ as the Johnson government has dubbed it. We are told it has confirmed ‘affiliations with to the Peoples’ Liberation Army, Ministry of State Security, & Ministry of Public Security’ and that there are ‘indications [the] PRC government may take advantage of market penetration for its own SIGINT purposes’. It is not just military networks that hold sensitive intelligence. The Snowden documents reveal the Five Eyes targeting civilian communications at trade summits to anticipate negotiating points.

Some might claim that unease with Huawei is no-more than a projection of American insecurity as Silicon Valley falls behind in the competition to supply 5G to the world. Just as the US once spent billions of dollars to close an imaginary ‘missile gap’, they suggest America is now drumming up a security panic to the advantage of its own workers. But it has also been pointed out that one reason Huawei has so consistently been able to underbid its competitors is because of tax breaks provided by the PRC, the quid pro quo for which might be backdoors into British and European networks. Article 7 of the 2017 National Intelligence Law of the People’s Republic mandates that all Chinese companies comply with the intelligence services; Huawei need not be willingly complicit for the state security apparatus to exploit its market position. 

There are good economic reasons why Johnson is unwilling to oppose Huawei. Their products are comparatively inexpensive, and the company is already so involved in our networks that a costly ban would also delay the roll out of 5G, the timely arrival of which was a campaign promise in December. But it is not worth jeopardising our security and closest diplomatic relationships for even the most tantalising of economic promises. The rebellious decision of thirty-eight Conservative MPs to sign an amendment that would phase out Huawei over a period of three years signalled a deep unease about handing over their data to a company with ties to an authoritarian regime that tracks ‘social credit’.

There are grounds for resisting Chinese mercantilism in favour of Huawei with a counter-mercantilism of our own. If this government doesn’t see the need to protect British industries, one wonders which will. But there are also solid security grounds for resisting a British private sector dependence on this one particular company. Intelligence experts may knowingly downplay the direct security threat, but we should we all too aware of the asymmetrical  commercial ones. This seems an odd cause to test our most fundamental intelligence relationships over. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover