Huawei and 5G: the tip of the iceberg for Johnson

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What is the ‘Huawei and 5G’ mobile internet controversy really all about and why is it important for the UK ? Here’s a fly past the detail.

The British position has been clear since April 2019, up until now. The National Security Council (NSC) was advised by UK security institutions that there were no security issues with the proposed roll out of 5G mobile internet, using Huawei equipment. This was advice that followed pre-contract negotiations with different UK institutions. A formal decision was expected in May 2019, but has been delayed. Germany has taken a similar line to the UK. The UK’s largest mobile phone company, Vodafone, backs the UK position, despite Vodafone-related disinformation appearing in the pro-Brexit press.

The US position, led by staunch neo-conservatives like Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, Vice President Pence and John Bolton, former National Security Adviser, was that Huawei is a national security risk, since its equipment will compromise the UK/USA ‘Five eyes’ Treaty. The US has been pressuring allies, especially ‘Five eyes’ members, to ban Huawei equipment in their 5G rollouts. Australia and New Zealand have succumbed, Canada hasn’t yet fully decided. Technical assessments in Australia or New Zealand have not been made public, but it is unlikely that they contradict assessments presented to the NSC in the UK.

The US claims Huawei is state-controlled, and obliged to provide intel to the Chinese government under the National Intelligence Law. China denies the law places any obligations on such companies, and says that Huawei is a private company.

More than a year ago Meng Wanzhou, CFO and the daughter of Huawei’s founder was arrested at Vancouver International Airport whilst in transit, at the request of the FBI. This was at exactly the same time President Trump had sat down with President Xi Jinping to discuss trade in Buenos Aires. Trump apparently had no prior knowledge. John Bolton said he did, and has implied that he encouraged it. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the neo-cons did this behind Trump’s back, as a signal.

Meng Wanzhou’s arrest and extradition request relates to Huawei’s business in Iran, and the enforcement of US unilateral sanctions against Iran; the so-called ‘global maximum pressure’ strategy. The case revolves around a telecom company in Iran called Skycom, which, the US says, was a subsidiary of Huawei in 2018, in breach of US sanctions, which Huawei denies.

Such an alleged connection is legal in Canada, but the FBI claims the subsidiary denial formed part of a loan contract between Huawei and HSBC and was thus fraudulent. In court in Vancouver this has been described as an ‘artifice’, and by implication merely a device to pressure Huawei to sever any links with Iran, and enforce US sanctions. HSBC itself is not under investigation.

PM Johnson is in yet another Brexit bind. The US has said that the UK doing 5G business with Huawei, alongside resistance to other anti-Iran measures, may scupper a US-UK trade deal.

Cancelling the Huawei contract may scupper a UK-China trade deal, however. Oops.

Boris has made comments supporting the US position against the advice of his own NSC. So have Priti Patel, and other extreme Brexiteers.

The Wanzhou case suggests US-Iran sanctions drives Huawei policy rather than technical security. Pompeo, and Bolton, in particular, have built their careers arguing for war with Iran, and have driven the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, new sanctions and ‘regime change’ calls.

Notwithstanding, these general issues are obscuring more important questions for the UK public.

Why is Huawei looking at a potential equipment monopoly in the UK, when Ericsson and Nokia and others can also provide 5G kit ? Has the UK done a deal to replicate Chinese communist ‘extreme surveillance’ in the UK ? Importantly, have the health & privacy risks associated with Chinese 5G been properly explored ?

These are legitimate issues of public concern that also need to be aired in parliament.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Simon McGrath 29th Jan '20 - 10:23am

    Goodness , surprised to see you spreading bonkers conspiracy stuff about 5G being dangerous Paul

  • Paul Reynolds 29th Jan '20 - 10:39am

    Thank you Simon. I think if you read the article again you might see I am saying quite the (caveatted) opposite. Perhaps you are having a busy morning, ha ha.

  • Is this Johnson going cap in hand to China in the hope of Trade deals whilst ignoring those who can provide the technology from Europe.? Ignore those in Europe cos of Brexit and therefore sell our soul to China whilst being caught in a bind with the US?

  • Simon McGrath 29th Jan '20 - 11:04am

    Thanks Paul for the clarification . There’s a good science based piece here

  • I have more than thirty years experience as an engineer working in mobile communications – for infrastructure manufacturers, a mobile operator and the Government. Despite this, I cannot claim to be an expert in the cybersecurity aspects, though I am confident that I have more understanding than most of the politicians who have been opining on Huawei in the last few days; for example, Tom Tugendhat (Theology, Univ. Bristol & Islamic Studies, Univ. Cambridge), Ian Duncan Smith (Sandhurst) and Tracy Brabin (Drama, Univ. Loughborough).
    There are two aspects of cybersecurity – interception and disruption – and most of the reporting fails to distinguish between them. The 5G system employs a wide range of security features, including end-to-end encryption and temporary anonymous identities for mobility and user management. Therefore, there is no means for the operator of the access network (base stations, masts etc) to eavedrop on the content of data or to know who is sending or receiving it.
    The standards for 5G are developed by an open global standards body called 3GPP, in which all of the manufacturers and significant operators participate. Huawei owns a large number of patents on 5G, but these are ‘essential IPR’ that is necessary to implement the standard and do not give it any proprietary input in to equipment meeting the standard, or opportunity for secret ‘back doors’.
    The Government is therefore right to allow Huawei to supply equipment for the access network. The risk of disruption still remains, but this risk is reduced if the national critical infrastructure is supplied by several vendors. Huawei might be categoried as a ‘high risk vendor’ but the risk exists for all vendors. There are documented cases of telecoms networks supplied by European or US firms being compromised by attacks without any involvement of the manufacturer – and I am sure that many of you will have suffered from viruses and other malware that got onto your computer without your knowledge or permission!
    The threat by Donald Trump over ‘five eyes’ is therefore bullying and blackmail, similar to the Ukraine saga. It has no technical basis in relation to the access network. The ‘five eyes’ communications will have its own encryption in addition to that provided by the network. The greatest risk of using a mobile network for sensitive data is that it will end up on a smartphone that can then be stolen.

  • There is a well known capitalist ploy where you heavily undercut the prices of rivals until they are no longer able to compete, once they are gone then you can ramp up the prices, so it is probably more about the US saving its own companies than security issues. Of course, you never know what is really going down, Boris may have an informal agreement for the Chinese to invest in 5G manufacturing in the UK down the line a bit.

    Best thing that can happen if govn money is involved in 5G (not sure why it should be with all these private telecom co’s) then the rollout should start in the most remote areas rather than where there are easy pickings in the big cities, then move on to the new Conservative “hearlland” up north.

  • Laurence Cox 29th Jan '20 - 11:47am


    Your article, by linking to the “Why Say No to 5G” web site, does invite comparison with bonkers conspiracy stuff as Simon rightly points out. Their page actually argues for wired telecommunications, which would make mobile telephony impossible. I can remember exactly the same arguments about mobile phone antennae when 2G/3G were introduced, but despite a good deal of scientific study there was no conclusive link found to the effects that the nay-sayers claimed.

    I am particularly concerned about your reference to “health risks … from Chinese 5G” as if it is in some way worse than 5G from any other supplier. This smacks of racism to me. Before your article was posted, the BBC had published an article where it was made clear that Huawei would only have a limited role in the periphery of the 5G network:

    Your failure to consider the most up-to-date information does make me wonder about the value of the rest of your article.

  • Paul Reynolds 29th Jan '20 - 12:27pm

    The article explores the issue of advice to the National Security Council up to April 2019 to the effect that there are no security-related reasons to ban Huawei completely from UK 5G networks, and the contrast with the US position in favour of a ban, which has been followed by Australia and NZ. The article refers to the long-running extradition case in Vancouver of Huawei’s CFO, which is likely to conclude early 2021, the detail of which suggests that Iran sanctions are the driver of the US position rather than security concerns. Back to local politics … talking to local Lib Dem party members in London, I found that ‘health scares’ related to 5G, Chinese or otherwise, have quite some traction, alongside these other ‘international’ controversies. I have received anti-5G leaflets through my door in West London. I have also been asked why European and other suppliers of 5G systems are not deployed more. These are important issues of apparent public concern. On the fomer issue I have not found strong enough evidence, and thus don’t accept the 5G health scare narratives myself. However there are many who don’t know what the health scare issue is all about so the link provided just demonstrates the nature of the theories. LDV readers are usually well-educated rational folk capable of doing their own online research, and I would encourage them so to do. However this is not the main thrust of the article, but I wish to pre-empt the ‘what about’ question from Lib Dems on these issues.

  • The European suppliers can be NOKIA and ERICSSON who can provide 5G ,as you say there are others. Are they not being considered cos of the obsession with Brexiteers not wanting anything from Europe. ? Would it not be o.k. to let these companies take over from China and thus avoid the ‘China security’ problems?

  • @n Hunter – re: Ericsson & Nokia
    The challenge is the free market… Currently, Huawei, a private for profit company based in China, makes the technically best and cheapest national network grade 5G kit, which the network operators would like to rollout. We should be raising questions as to why and how Huawei got to be so far ahead technologically to both the European and US 5G equipment vendors and what if anything we can do to reduce their lead ie. get the European manufacturers to catch up. Obviously, the network operators would also like this as they are aware their networks are becoming monopolised by Huawei equipment, which doesn’t bode well in the long run; namely, we can expect the pool of 5G equipment manufacturers to further reduce in size.

    As to the political dimension, well a game is being played by the US and China and the UK is just one of many (expendable) pawns in that game…

  • Rob Harrison 30th Jan '20 - 4:11am

    Thanks Paul for setting out this background. There’s also a good comment from Simon Pike who rightly points out the difference between disruption to the system and interference (listening). As Simon points out, disruption can be limited by ensuring multiple suppliers in the network. One of the advantages of 5G is that there will be at least potentially multiple pathways that data can take. The government has talked about limiting Huawei’s contribution to “35%” (but it’s not clear what this refers to) and competition in the industry needs to be monitored to ensure, as Roland emphasises, that there is no monopoly in the market place.

    Simon Pike’s further comment that interception can be limited because of the encryption is also ignored in too many of the discussions. When WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption it was criticised because it was no longer possible for the police and security forces to be able to (easily) read the correspondence.

    To answer n hunter’s comments: it is clear that Nokia and Ericsson will be supplying equipment (as will other companies).

  • Rob Harrison 30th Jan '20 - 4:17am

    The best page I know discussing the possible health risks of mobile communication is that from the World Health Organisation at: and in particular

    The pages present current scientific thinking.

    There’s a lot of mistaken information going the rounds – mobile phone manufacturers do NOT say, for example, that you should keep the phone 5mm (or ½ inch, or 1 inch) from your body. The latest Apple leaflet on RF exposure information says that this is the distance at which the radiation was measured. See,3/en/

  • John Roffey 30th Jan '20 - 9:03am

    Interesting case from Italy:

    Italian court rules mobile phone use caused brain tumour.
    Court awards pension to employee who claimed work-related use of a mobile led to him developing a benign tumour.

    Although the use by this claimant was excessive – by almost any standards – and the judge ruled that there was no other reasonable explanation other than that the phone had caused the benign tumour.

    I am still not convinced that the move from 4G to 5G is worth the risk – and since no long-term trials have been carried out – surely it is ‘a massive biological experiment’.

    Perhaps someone can tell me how the greatly improved speeds are really so advantageous – apart from enabling corporations to place relevant adverts on sites in a fraction of the time it takes at present and for even greater surveilliance capabilities for those who want to know your every movement each day and every day.

  • Jenny Barnes 30th Jan '20 - 10:19am

    From the articles I’ve read on this, it’s pretty clear that any risk to using Huawei kit is more likely to come from everyday hacking of the poor quality code that they have developed, rather than some mythical Chinese government backdoors. As to the criticism of China in general – surveillance state etc – I notice that the Met are introducing facial recognition tech in London (V for Vendetta masks required to visit london now), and the USA has been going in for extra judicial killing by drone anywhere they like (Solameini eg.) and has form in government sponsored hacking, for example the Stuxnet worm implanted in Iranian nuclear facilities. I wonder if the US will decide to hack our 5G network to teach us a lesson?
    So the pressure from the US not to use Huawei is far more about trade policy and America first than any genuine security concerns.

  • @John Roffey “Perhaps someone can tell me how the greatly improved speeds are really so advantageous”
    The real beneficiaries of 5G are the network operators as it has the potential to increase network capacity – thus support more subscribers per cell (although this is mitigated by needing to have smaller cells and thus more masts and a more complex backhaul network) and better support for some styles of communication such as the control of driverless cars on UK roads out of a ‘cloud’ data centre…
    Given the poor coverage of decent 3G and 4G (eg. at my house I get 5Mbps on Three 3G and 1Mbps on EE 4G), 5G is going to be an irrelevance to most people.

  • David Evans 30th Jan '20 - 6:02pm

    I’m afraid Simon Pike, while broadly correct in his facts is incorrect with some of his conclusions regarding the risk from Huawei. Certainly end to end encryption and the like makes a breach of secrecy/confidentiality (what Simon calls interception) much more difficult, it does give them a lot of data to play with to search for weaknesses the encryption algorithms and how they are implemented.

    However with regards to availability/denial of service (what Simon calls disruption) the risks are much wider than he considers. In particular his statement “The standards for 5G are developed by an open global standards body called 3GPP, in which all of the manufacturers and significant operators participate. Huawei owns a large number of patents on 5G, but these are ‘essential IPR’ that is necessary to implement the standard and do not give it any proprietary input in to equipment meeting the standard, or opportunity for secret ‘back doors’,” is very wide of the mark.

    Unfortunately, compliance with standards splits into two separate threads
    – Positive Compliance (e.g. a piece of kit must do X) which is easy to confirm by testing, except for when it only does not comply by exception (Volkswagen diesel testing is a simple example).
    – Negative Compliance (e.g. a piece of kit must not do Y) which is very difficult to test if only triggered by a switch (you need to know what the switch is) and effectively impossible to monitor for when hidden among billions of other packets of information.

    Huge disruption could be caused in the short term by 35% of the network equipment generating spurious message packets to the other 65%. At a time of international tension that could be catastrophic.

  • @David Evans – “while broadly correct in his facts is incorrect with some of his conclusions regarding the risk from Huawei.”
    And the relevant UK agencies will have taken all of this and much more into consideration, determining mitigations and also considering what things might look like if Huawei equipment wasn’t used in the UK, before arriving at their recommendation to Government.

    From reports, the relevant agencies have consulted widely with their Five-eyes counterparts (and others) and used their extensive knowledge of securing the UK’s existing networks in reaching their conclusions and drawing their recommendations.

    So, as someone who has been deeply involved in the designed of networks and contributed to various International Standards bodies, I’m happy about the technical and cybersecurity aspects of this. The only thing outstanding and left to Government, is the geopolitical consideration: what does this deal do for the UK’s relationships primarily with the US, Europe and China, but also for a vast swathe of countries the UK is going to have to do (a lot more) business with post-Brexit?

    I think the decision was correct as it allows and limits the extent to which one equipment vendor can monopolise the market . Additionally, it permits comparative monitoring, helping to keep vendors (and their host governments) honest and providing opportunities for UK agencies to assess Huawei’s equipment in “their own backyard”.
    From a political viewpoint, it has both fired warning shots and shown that the UK is open for business.

  • Roland 30th Jan ’20 – 2:40pm

    Thanks for that Roland – my problem is that this is not a subject that I find easy. However, it is clearly important – so I am doing my best.

    In looking at a number of YouTube videos by the ‘concerned’ – there seemed a frequent reference to the microwaves steadily breaking down the human immune system – in fact the immune system of all life forms. Does this mean that the Coronavirus could have initially developed because Wuhan is a highly advanced city and likely to have a significant 5G coverage already?

    Although it has very few views – this video seemed the most informative of those I have seen.

  • Roland – ”
    So, as someone who has been deeply involved in the designed of networks and contributed to various International Standards bodies, I’m happy about the technical and cybersecurity aspects of this. The only thing outstanding and left to Government, is the geopolitical consideration: what does this deal do for the UK’s relationships primarily with the US, Europe and China, but also for a vast swathe of countries the UK is going to have to do (a lot more) business with post-Brexit?” – I will never choose a totalitarian state over the United States of America, but BoJo and Co may be different.

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