OTTAWA – Canadian officials will be “cheering from the sidelines” over fresh signals that Britain believes it can manage any security risks posed by Huawei Technologies’ involvement in building a next-generation wireless data network, says an intelligence expert who closely studies the issue.
British media reports say the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre has concluded that with care and safeguards, Huawei equipment can be used in “5G” networks, amid pressure from the United States to ban the Chinese supplier.
If Britain gives Huawei a cautious green light, it will allow Canada room to make an independent decision, said Wesley Wark, an intelligence expert who teaches at the University of Ottawa.
“Whether such an approach can prevail in Canada in the face of U.S. pressure is the question for us, as it is for Britain and Europe,” Wark said Monday.
The federal government is weighing Huawei’s possible participation in 5G wireless systems that will allow Canadians to do more on cellphones and other internet-connected devices at vastly greater speeds.
China’s National Intelligence Law plainly says that Chinese organizations and citizens shall support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work, prompting national security concerns in Canada.
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Some security analysts argue that a Huawei role in 5G could give it access to a wide range of digital data gleaned from how, when and where Canadian customers use their electronic devices. In turn, government security agencies of a communist country with global ambitions would prize such information.
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Huawei, though it is one of China’s marquee international companies, emphasizes it is not a state-controlled enterprise and says it would never spy on behalf of Beijing or anyone else.
Still, three of Canada’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group – the United States, Australia and New Zealand – have forbidden the use of Huawei products in 5G network development, though the U.S. ban is limited to government agencies – at least for now.
The Trump administration is said to be developing an executive order that would effectively ban U.S. firms from using components from China in key telecom networks.
The U.S. lacks a leading corporate player in the 5G supplier game, fuelling suggestions that Washington’s drumbeat of fear is propelled by commercial worries as much as security and legal concerns.
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Tension and speculation concerning Ottawa’s coming decision on 5G have been heightened by the December arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver following a request from U.S. authorities and the subsequent detention of two Canadians by China on security grounds.
Wark pointed to Huawei’s history of fostering technological innovation in Canada and supplying quality gear to major telecommunications providers as reasons to assess the security risks on rational, technical grounds.
He says an important marker in the British debate came recently in an opinion piece published in the Financial Times by Robert Hannigan, former head of the British signals-intelligence and cybersecurity agency, the Government Communications Headquarters.
Hannigan argued that British security officials had never found evidence of Huawei involvement in Chinese state-sponsored cyberespionage, and that political fashion or trade wars should not eclipse rational assessment of risk.
“Canadian officials will be cheering from the sidelines as the Canadian government ponders its own internal review of the threat posed by Huawei,” Wark said. “The British approach, if it proves to be one of managed risk, will give Canada breathing space to resist the U.S. campaign and develop a similar strategy.”