A smartphone with the Huawei and 5G network logo is seen on a PC motherboard in this illustration picture taken January 29, 2020

5G rollout will open up UK to further security risks, MPs warn

Image credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The Commons Defence Select Committee has published its latest report, 'The Security of 5G', which warns that pursuing short-term innovation could compromise national security and alleges that Huawei has a relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Defence Committee said that the government’s ambitions for the UK 5G rollout are “laudable”. However, it warns that this cannot come at the cost of national security.

“5G will increase our reliance on mobile connectivity, and this represents a security risk whether from 'espionage, sabotage, or system failure'. Many more items will be connected to the internet through 5G meaning a greater surface for illicit actions, which represents a risk to individuals as well as to defence and government,” the report said [PDF].

These threats – which range from theft of individual data and state secrets to attacks on critical infrastructure – could come from rogue individuals as well as from hostile states.

Among other issues, the committee warned that the vendor market for 5G equipment is not diverse enough. Three companies currently dominate the 5G equipment market: Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. With the government banning Huawei from playing any role in the UK’s 5G network – largely due to increasingly strict US sanctions restricting Huawei’s semiconductor supply – this leaves just two major vendors for operators to work with.

The government and operators should continue investment in OpenRAN in order to move to an environment in which operators are no longer so restricted with regards to which vendor they source from, the committee advised.

“Even with the inclusion of Huawei the market was sub-optimal and the government’s decision to remove Huawei completely [...] poses a risk that could potentially result in an even less diverse market, which could bring security and resilience concerns of its own,” the committee report said.

UK operators have been told to remove Huawei’s equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 and stop purchasing Huawei 5G equipment by the end of the year. The Defence Committee said that there is “no doubt that Huawei’s designation as a high-risk vendor is justified”.

The committee said that it had seen clear evidence that Huawei has a relationship with the CCP – although it did not reveal any details of these alleged ties – and that the UK may need to remove all equipment earlier than originally planned (potentially as early as 2025).

“Protecting the public and preserving our nation’s security are among the principle responsibilities of government. The decision to embed a technology that comprises this would constitute a gross dereliction of these duties,” said committee chair Tobias Ellwood.

“The West must urgently unite to advance a counterweight to China’s tech dominance. As every aspect of our lives becomes increasingly reliant on access to data movement, we must develop a feasible, practical and cost-effective alternative to the cheap, high-tech solutions which can be preyed upon and which come stooped with conditions which ensnare a state into long-term allegiance to China.

“We must not surrender our national security for the sake of short-term technological development. This is a false and wholly unnecessary trade-off.”

Huawei has repeatedly rejected accusations from US President Donald Trump and his allies that it has a relationship with the CCP or that its network equipment be used as a tool of surveillance. In response to the report, a Huawei spokesperson said that it lacked credibility.

“It is built on opinion rather than fact. We’re sure people will see through these groundless accusations of collusion and remember instead what Huawei has delivered for Britain over the past 20 years,” they told BBC News.

The committee also concluded that current regulations for network security are outdated. It recommended that the planned Telecoms Security Bill should bring regulations up to date – such as by allowing the government to force operators to act in the interests of national security – and be introduced before the end of the year.

The committee also backed proposals for a 'D10 alliance' of the world’s 10 largest democracies, which could collaborate to support alternatives to technology companies based in China. It also encouraged the government to collaborate with allies to formulate a system of accountability for perpetrators of cyber aggressions.

A government spokesperson said: “The security of our telecoms networks is of paramount importance and we will not shy away from taking difficult decisions that protect our digital infrastructure while allowing us to seize the revolutionary benefits of 5G technology. We are pushing ahead with plans to reduce our dependence on individual suppliers and will shortly legislate to bring in one of the strongest telecoms security regimes in the world.”

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