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Summary:

Huawei has set up a testing facility in the U.K. to assure security services that its widespread networking kit is backdoor-free. Only it turns out “the Cell” doesn’t have a whole lot of oversight.

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Britain’s national security authorities should conduct an urgent review of Huawei’s “Cell”, a networking equipment testing facility, a parliamentary committee has said.

This is the latest episode in the long-running and global “Can we trust Huawei?” game. No-one has ever caught out the Chinese firm using its equipment to spy on people, nor has anyone even made such definitive allegations, but Huawei’s opaque relationship with the Chinese state has already led both the U.S. and Australia to ban the equipment from those countries’ broadband networks.

The U.K. doesn’t have that option – it’s now a decade since BT selected Huawei to supply kit for its 21st Century Network program (the upgrading of the country’s core networks), and today Huawei equipment can be found in the infrastructure of BT, O2, TalkTalk and EE. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Second thoughts

That makes this a game of mitigating risk. To that end, in 2010 Huawei agreed to set up an equipment testing facility, known not at all ominously as the Cell, to reassure the U.K.’s spooks that nothing untoward was being snuck into the country’s critical national infrastructure.

So how’s that working out?

“Before seeking clarification, we assumed that Huawei funded the Cell but that it was run by GCHQ [the U.K.'s spy services],” the Intelligence and Security Committee wrote in its report (PDF warning), issued on Thursday. Nuh-uh – once they started digging, they realized that the Cell is staffed by Huawei people. Security-cleared Huawei people, but nonetheless not GCHQ, unless you count the director, who used to be at GCHQ but is now on Huawei’s payroll.

GCHQ has apparently argued that it’s better for the Cell to be staffed by Huawei people. The parliamentary committee did “not find this argument to be compelling”, it understated, pleading with the security services to at least get involved in staff selection.

And how’s this for reassuring?

“The Committee has been told that use of the Cell is voluntary: of the five [communications service providers] that use Huawei products, only three make use of the Cell’s facilities. The Government has told us that use of the Cell is encouraged only where a company is using Huawei equipment to provide services to the Government or as part of the [critical national infrastructure], or operating at a scale that could have a significant impact. Nevertheless, we question its assessment that the two major broadband providers which do not use the Cell are not operating at a scale where using its services would provide extra mitigation.”

Everything’s fine

In response to all this, the British ambassador to China, Sebastian Wood, issued a statement highlighting how Huawei is a “long-term valued investor in the U.K. with a business that is growing and creating jobs in Britain.”

“Our work with Huawei and their U.K. customers gives us confidence that the networks in the U.K. that use Huawei equipment are safe and secure,” he added.

Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, chipped in with this: “I am pleased that next week Huawei is opening a flagship office in Reading as part of its plan to invest £1.3bn into its UK business over the next five years, generating a further 700 jobs.”

Nice to know the government is confident, but what the parliamentary committee found amounts to this: Huawei’s much-vaunted testing facility turns out to be a self-regulating Huawei affair, and one that still isn’t fully operational at that. What’s more, it only started to be set up several years after Huawei began supplying equipment for Britain’s critical infrastructure. The committee also slammed the civil servants of a decade ago for not alerting ministers when Huawei was being proposed as a major BT supplier.

This isn’t to say the U.K.’s communications nervous system is riddled with security-busting backdoors. But the oversight to stop this from being the case appears to have been lacking, to say the least. And there’s not a lot anyone can do about it now.

  1. And no one is concerned about the US spying then? US equipment – no backdoors there then. Oh of course no need – it all gets stolen in the satellites. Silly me.

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