Sunday, 17 February 2019 19:09

Former GCHQ chief slams bid for blanket ban on Chinese tech Featured

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Robert Hannigan: "The key point here, obscured by the growing hysteria over Chinese tech, is that the NCSC has never found evidence of malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei." Robert Hannigan: "The key point here, obscured by the growing hysteria over Chinese tech, is that the NCSC has never found evidence of malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei." Courtesy: GCHQ

A former director of Government Communications Headquarters, Britain's top spy agency, says statements that using any Chinese technology in any part of a 5G network represents an unacceptable risk are nonsense.

In an op-ed in the UK's Financial Times, Robert Hannigan, who served GCHQ from 2014-17, said the chorus of voices calling for Chinese firms to be locked out of telecommunications networks in Western countries cited a number of concerns all of which were lumped together under a perceived cyber threat which could only be countered by a total ban.

But, he said, these arguments "are short on technical understanding of cyber security and the complexities of 5G architecture".

The US has been campaigning for at least the last two years to try and get countries that it considers allies not to use Huawei equipment in the rollout of 5G networks. Australia has bowed to these wishes, as has New Zealand.

As iTWire  reported last Wednesday, US President Donald Trump was said to be ready to issue an executive order last week banning the use of telecommunications equipment from Chinese companies in American wireless networks.

While the American allegations against Huawei, accusing the Chinese telecommunications vendor of violating its sanctions against Iran were not trivial, Hannigan said they had nothing to do with telephony or cyber attacks. He added that if Huawei was found to have indeed violated these sanctions, then the company would meet with the same penalties as some well-known British banks.

Hannigan said Britain had a unique way to evaluate any possible risk from Huawei to the UK's telecommunications networks – through the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, a testing centre set up by the company and jointly run with the UK's National Cyber Security Centre.

"The GCHQ-vetted facility, which has been evaluating Huawei’s presence in UK telecom networks for some years, has given us a detailed insight into the company’s hardware, code, processes and policies," Hannigan wrote. "No other Western government has this."

He said that certain issues had been identified in recent years and the company had said it would expend the necessary money and put in the technical talent needed to sort out these issues. "Huawei has reportedly promised to address the criticisms and to spend huge sums doing so. The NCSC should wait and see how well it delivers," Hannigan wrote.

But, he said, the key point, which had been obscured by the hysteria over Chinese technology "is that the NCSC has never found evidence of malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei".

"It is not naive: it has, for example, pointed to the scale of Chinese state-linked cyber espionage through attacks on IT-managed service providers around the world. But the fact that these attacks did not require the manipulation of Chinese sovereign companies such as Huawei merely underlines how ineffective a blanket security ban based on company national flags is likely to be."

Hannigan said those who were "running for cover from Chinese companies", after welcoming inward investments with open arms all these years, were acting as though the fact that China was run by a Communist government was something not known until now, as also the fact that the party could reach "if it wishes, into every part of the Chinese private sector".

"But most of us had priced that into our threat calculations long ago; I expect China does the same in reverse," he added.

Maintaining a clear head about these facts would help factor in the risk when incorporating Chinese technology into networks, Hannigan said, adding that "sensible restrictions" on where such technology was deployed and ensuring there was no single point of failure were ways to manage any risk.

"But assertions that any Chinese technology in any part of a 5G network represents an unacceptable risk are nonsense," he said, adding that Western countries should accept that China would be a global tech power in the future and start managing the risk immediately, rather than pretend that the West could turn a blind eye to China's inevitable technological rise.

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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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