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Monday, 27 May 2019 10:30

Reuters' bid to cast Turnbull as hero in 5G drama strains credulity

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Malcolm Turnbull: an unlikely tech champion. Malcolm Turnbull: an unlikely tech champion. Courtesy YouTube

Anonymous sources close to former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull appear to be trying to promote him as a tech champion who led the charge to get Huawei banned from 5G networks worldwide, crediting the ex-PM with having pushed the Americans into reacting against the Chinese company, rather than the other way round.

That is, if you believe what can be only termed a highly overblown "investigation" published by the British news agency Reuters last week that strains credulity at many points, meandering back and forth as it details mostly old information.

The claims in the article could also have affected the chances of healing Australia's strained ties with China – which would fit well with the narrative that Turnbull is trying to pay back those who were responsible for turfing him out of Canberra, something that has more than a grain of truth in it.

The yarn drew little comment from any publication, unlike some tech stories from Bloomberg, both this year and last, which drew sharp negative reactions. But the Reuters story in large part serves the Western need for propaganda against Huawei and that may be why the improbability of casting Turnbull, a man who actually knows very little about technology as shown by his ineptitude at home, as the hero in the 5G drama has been overlooked.

According to the Reuters tale, written by five people and originating from Canberra, it was the Australian Signals Directorate which first became aware of the extent to which a 5G network could be compromised. This was followed by the ASD director Mike Burgess explaining why 5G was crucial during a speech in March.

A month before that, Turnbull visited the US. A senior Australian source is said to have told Reuters: "He was warning about how important 5G networks would be and the security risks we all needed to think about around countries that had capability, form and intent, as well as coercive laws."

Credible reports out of the US at the time had the Americans warning Turnbull to cut off Huawei from being part of the Australian 5G networks!

This kind of revisionism isn't new. But given that Turnbull has shown singularly bad judgment in backing the technology for Australia's broadband network — he was the champion of using HFC — that has made the rollout a major disaster, one tends to doubt that he would have any detailed technical knowledge about 5G at all.

In fact, Turnbull has been better known for spreading a common myth about 5G: that there is no separation between the radio access network and the core, a separation that has been there in 3G and 4G and has been continued in 5G for security reasons by the industry body 3GPP and the International Telecommunications Union, the two organisations that set the standards for the technology.

The last time Turnbull was sought to be painted as a champion was by Nine journalists Chris Uhlmann and Angus Grigg when they wrote this highly improbable sentence in a timeline: "February 24: Malcolm Turnbull lobbied US spy agencies to ban Huawei and ZTE from Australian 5G network. (emphasis mine). Of course, this could be their subconscious at work, admitting the extent to which the US controls Australian foreign policy.

The Reuters report claims a British declaration in July 2018 about security processes in Huawei's software was "a bombshell", according to one unnamed US official. But reports at the time hardly characterised it as such. Indeed, at the time a UK National Cyber Security Centre spokesperson said that a program to sort out an issue with checking internal product code was underway and would be completed by mid-2020. No bomb and no shell either.

Australian officials are also said to have shared their concerns about 5G with officials from Japan, Germany, other European countries and South Korea. This strains credulity again because not a word of this so-called sharing ever surfaced in Western media – which has been quite assiduous when it comes to publishing anything that is anti-Huawei. Indeed, Reuters has been very much at the forefront of tracking such stories.

One aspect of the Reuters report which cast serious doubt on the authors' level of technical comprehension was when it mentioned the fact that NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden had shown that America's premier spy agency had breached Huawei's systems in Shenzhen, and added "Reuters couldn’t independently verify that such intrusions took place".

This borders on the ludicrous; from whom would one gain independent verification of something the NSA did? Add to this the fact that none — yes, not a word — of what Snowden leaked has ever been questioned, and you have one of the most ridiculous statements ever to grace a news report, at least in my lifetime.

For the rest, the Reuters' "investigation" is mostly mundane facts and theories that have been floated time and time again over the last two years as the Americans made the job of throwing mud at Huawei more or less a daily affair.

Finally, the US has resorted to government bans. On 16 May, it imposed a ban on Huawei and 68 of its affiliates, preventing the company from importing components from American companies without government approval. Some of the affiliates are in other countries like Canada, Japan, Brazil, the UK, Singapore and others. Last Monday, Google announced it was cutting off Huawei's access to future updates of Google's Android and Google Play Store.

Last Tuesday, the US Commerce Department eased some of the restrictions, allowing Huawei to maintain and update existing networks and handsets.

Trump also put in place a ban on the use of equipment from Huawei and its fellow Chinese firm, ZTE, within the US but that would not have much effect on either firm as the US uses very little equipment from either company.

The irony of these last steps is that it proves what the Americans have been claiming about the Chinese – that the government controls the actions of tech companies. It seems like exactly the same is the case in the US of A!

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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