Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

China Will Use Huawei to Spy Because So Would You

| July 14, 2020

There is a long, and secret, history of countries—including Britain and the United States—forcing companies to protect national security by helping them eavesdrop in bulk.

Boris Johnson's government announced Tuesday that it would block the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from Britain's next-generation cellular 5G network. A review by Britain's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) had concluded that recent U.S. sanctions imposed on Huawei would make it impossible for Britain to use its 5G technology.

But apart from such technical questions, the underlying question about Huawei equipment—whether it poses a threat to British national security—deserves far more attention. Previously, the NCSC assessed that Huawei’s risk could be mitigated by limiting its access to the "periphery" of Britain's 5G network while shielding its sensitive "core." It is reassuring that Britain's signals intelligence service, GCHQ, which the NCSC is part of, has investigated Huawei since it first entered Britain's broadband network years ago and has not to date detected any evidence of malicious Chinese state cyberactivity through Huawei.

Absence of evidence, however, should not be interpreted as evidence of absence—or intent. In fact, there is a long history of all kinds of governments exploiting commercial communication companies to collect foreign intelligence in bulk to further their interests and protect their national security. The British and U.S. governments have themselves been previous perpetrators of such exploitation—and victims.

Uncovering this history is inherently difficult, as it involves some of the most closely guarded secrets in modern history, but newly opened intelligence archives now make it possible. They show that London and Washington previously brokered covert agreements with communication companies to rig their hardware to give code breakers easier access to material whenever they believed doing so advanced their national interests....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“China Will Use Huawei to Spy Because So Would You.” Foreign Policy, July 14, 2020.