Security fears haunt decision on 5G deal

Super-connected: Huawei sells more smartphones than any other company, including Apple. © Getty

Should Britain be doing business with Huawei? Many believe that the Chinese telecom giant cannot be trusted to upgrade the UK’s internet system. Now, a government decision is imminent.

Agnes Ouyang was on her way to work in the Chinese city of Shenzhen when two police officers told her she had crossed a road illegally.

They demanded to see her identity card; when she refused, they grabbed her and photographed her face. Within seconds, a central computer had worked out who she was so that they could fine her.

No country is better at using technology to control people than China. Its facial-recognition systems can scan whole crowds to pick out someone the authorities are looking for.

And many worry that if Britain puts a Chinese company in charge of building its 5G phone network, the government in Beijing will have the power to interfere in our lives too.

One MP, Bob Seely, has compared it to letting “the fox into the hen house”.

The 5G (short for “fifth generation”) system is expected to transform the internet, making download speeds at least 10 times faster, and allowing multiple devices to connect with each other.

A driverless car will be able to pick up traffic reports and change its route for a faster one. A hospital operation could be carried out by surgeons based in different countries, working together through remote control.

The British government believes that Huawei is the only company that can deliver 5G as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as the country needs.

But critics say that Huawei is a tool of the Chinese government.

Its founder was an engineer in the Chinese army, and is thought to work closely with the intelligence services. In building the 5G network, it could secretly include software to spy on us and even sabotage our infrastructure.

To make the decision harder, the US government has said that Huawei cannot be trusted, and has put pressure on Britain to use a different company. It has even threatened to stop sharing intelligence with the British security services if the deal goes ahead.

With Brexit finally due to happen this week, Boris Johnson does not want to antagonise a trading partner as important as the US – but nor does he want to fall out with the Chinese.

So, should Britain be doing business with Huawei?

Treat or trick?

Some say that Huawei should be chosen to build the 5G network on grounds of speed and cost. It has already provided many elements of the 4G network, which it could easily build on. With a different company, these would have to be replaced, which would take time and cost of billions of pounds. As for spying, sensitive parts of the network could be separated from the rest, with higher security.

Others argue that a Huawei system would be a Trojan horse. Huawei does what the government in Beijing tells it to, and could secretly build in fatal weaknesses. It is wrong to say that some parts of the network could be made more secure. A European company such as Nokia would be a much safer alternative. We need to keep in with the US, and should join it in saying, “No way, Huawei!”

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live in a house where you could control every device remotely?
  2. Should Britain pass a law preventing foreign companies from having a controlling stake in essential services?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are an ancient Greek in charge of building the Trojan horse. Draw a diagram showing how many soldiers you could fit inside it.
  2. The internet throughout your country has been disabled by a cyber attack. Write an imaginary diary entry describing your day and talking about the disruption everywhere.

Some People Say...

“We are moving rapidly into a world in which the spying machinery is built into every object we encounter.”

Howard Rheingold, US author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Chinese are experts at facial-recognition technology. The British government is about to decide whether to let Huawei build its 5G network. The founder of Huawei served as an engineer in the Chinese army, and Chinese companies are obliged by law to co-operate with the security services. The US has refused to use Huawei for its own 5G network, and has threatened not to share intelligence with Britain if Huawei gets the contract.
What do we not know?
What decision the British government will reach. Whether Huawei is actively helping the Chinese security services spy on other countries. Whether Huawei plans to hide secret weaknesses in Britain’s 5G system, and whether sensitive parts of the system can be kept safe. We don’t know exactly how much money would be saved by using Huawei. Or if the US would carry out its threat not to share intelligence, and whether it would refuse to make a trade agreement with Britain.

Word Watch

Facial-recognition
A way of identifying people by matching their faces to photographs stored on a computer.
Intelligence
In this case, information about a rival or enemy.
Sabotage
Do deliberate damage to.
Infrastructure.
The basic systems and services that a country needs to keep it going, such as roads, railways, sewers and electrical grids.
Antagonise
Make angry.
Trading partner
A country or company you buy from or sell to.
Trojan horse
According to legend, an ancient Greek army laid siege to the city of Troy, in what is now Turkey. After 10 years, the Greeks pretended to give up, leaving a giant wooden horse as an offering to the gods. But the horse was hollow, with soldiers hidden inside it, who climbed out when they were inside the city and opened the gates.
Nokia
One of the world’s leading telecommunications companies, based in Finland.

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