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MPs express 5G security fears

October 8, 2020

By Colin Mann

A report from the Defence Committee of the UK House of Commons, The Security of 5G, finds that the development of 5G will increase the nation’s dependency on mobile connectivity, opening the UK up to security risks such as espionage, sabotage or system failure.

The Committee launched an inquiry into the security of 5G on March 6th 2020, following the UK Government’s decision to exclude high risk vendors, notably Huawei, from the most sensitive parts of the UK’s 5G network, while allowing it to supply peripheral components such as mobile phone masts and antennae. At the time, it invited written evidence submissions on the following points:

  • What are the risks to the UK’s 5G infrastructure? How can these be mitigated?
  • What is the role of government in 5G cyber security?
  • To what degree is it possible to exclude Huawei technology from the most sensitive parts of the UK’s 5G network while allowing it to supply peripheral components?
  • What credible alternatives are available to Huawei systems?
  • To what extent was the UK Government’s decision on Huawei driven by political rather than technical factors?
  • How will the UK Government’s decision impact the UK’s geopolitical position?
  • How will the UK’s allies, particularly those in Five Eyes [the intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States], respond to this decision?
  • How will this decision impact the UK’s security and defence capabilities and the UK’s interoperability with allies?
  • How important is it for the UK, separately or with allies, to maintain industrial capability in this field?

The Committee’s subsequent report makes a number of recommendations including on the following topics.

Working with allies

The Committee found that there is currently a lack of global rules regulating international cyber-attacks and the Government should be working with allies to formulate a system to provide accountability for perpetrators.

The UK’s closest allies within Five Eyes originally embarked on a policy at odds with the UK’s and the Government should have considered the potential damage to key alliances. The Committee conclude that this alone is enough of a concern to begin removing Huawei from the UK’s 5G network.

The Committee supports the proposal to form a D10 alliance, consisting of ten of the world’s largest democracies, in order to provide alternatives to Chinese technology and to combat the technological dominance of authoritarian states. The Government must act swiftly and outline a joint 5G policy as soon as possible.

The Government must continue to denounce and deter threats from adversarial states, such as Russia and China, on the international stage. The Committee call on the Government to clarify why it is not deploying a cyberattack capability to deter aggressors.

UK Government response

The Committee found that the current regulatory situation for network security is outdated and unsatisfactory.

The planned Telecoms Security Bill is required to bring regulations up to date and to allow the Government to compel operators to act in the interests of security. The current situation has led to commercial concerns trumping those of national security, which is unacceptable. The Government should not allow a situation where short-term commercial considerations are placed ahead of those for national security and defence. The Committee argue that the Telecoms Security Bill is necessary in order to enhance the Government’s and Government bodies’ regulatory powers and should be introduced before 31 December 2020.

The Committee supports the UK Government’s goal of removing Huawei from the UK’s 5G networks by 2027. However, the Committee note that developments could necessitate this date being moved forward, potentially to 2025 which could be considered economically feasible. The Government should take necessary steps to minimise the delay and economic damage and consider providing compensation to operators if the 2027 deadline is moved forward.

A clear conclusion from the Committee was that the UK vendor market for 5G kit is not diverse enough. The  Government should work with mobile network operators to bring in new vendors to the UK, for example Samsung or NEC, as well as encouraging the development of industrial capability in the UK. In addition to this, OpenRAN presents an opportunity to move away from the current consolidated vendor environment to one in which operators no longer have to consider which vendor to source from. The UK Government and mobile service operators should continue investment in OpenRAN technology and work to make the UK a global leader in both technological development and production.

The risks of Huawei

The inquiry found that there is clear evidence of collusion between Huawei and the Chinese state, which supports the decision to remove them from the UK’s networks.

The designation of Huawei as a high-risk vendor by the UK Government is appropriate and completely justified with the correct steps being taken to remove them from the UK’s 5G. In the meantime, however, the Committee is content that Huawei has been, and continues to be, sufficiently distanced from sensitive defence and national security sites.

“Protecting the public and preserving our nation’s security are amongst the principle responsibilities of Government,” stated Tobias Ellwood MP, Chair of the Defence Committee. “The decision to embed a technology that compromises this would constitute a gross dereliction of these duties.”

“The West must urgently unite to advance a counterweight to China’s tech dominance. As every aspect of our lives becomes increasingly reliant on access to data movement we must develop a feasible, practical and cost-effective alternative to the cheap, high-tech solutions which can be preyed upon and which come stooped with conditions which ensnare a state into long-term allegiance to China.”

“We must not surrender our national security for the sake of short-term technological development. This is a false and wholly unnecessary trade off. A new D10 alliance, that unites the world’s ten strongest democracies, would provide a viable alternative foundation to the technological might of authoritarian states, whose true motives are, at times, murky. Democracies the world over are waking up to the dangers of new technology from overseas, that could inadvertently provide hostile states access to sensitive information through the backdoor.“

“The Government’s decision earlier this year was a step in the right direction. However, current regulations are porous and legislation lacks teeth, continuing to allow telecoms companies to prioritise profit over the public and the nations’ security. Thankfully, Huawei, and the risks that foreign technology pose to our national security, have garnered much-needed and long-overdue attention in recent months. The Government must ensure that legislation is airtight, leaving no room for companies to slip through the cracks. Enacting the Telecoms Security Bill by the end of this year is imperative, as this will bring regulations up to date,” he concluded.



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