The UK government was the centre of a storm of criticism surrounding plans for the country’s new 5G cellphone network. Although the new network is desperately needed, experts are concerned about the decision to include Huawei technology.

What’s the problem with Huawei?

In China, successful companies tend to be very closely aligned with the government. This means that they agree to operate according to very strict rules – and to share information if requested.

Information sharing is absolutely vital to the way that the Chinese population is monitored and controlled. And tech companies like Huawei play a role in making state surveillance possible.

As the relationship between Huawei’s senior management and the Chinese government has become clearer, many governments have voiced concerns. If Huawei technology is used to spy on Chinese citizens, it could also be used to spy on foreign countries too.

An unusual decision

These concerns make the UK’s decision to permit Huawei technology in the construction of critical national infrastructure all the more unusual. The USA and Australia have already banned the Chinese supplier from their own projects and others are expected to follow their lead.

The UK believe they have controlled any risk of espionage by limiting Huawei to supplying equipment at ‘the edge’ of the network. They will not be allowed to assist with the construction of the ‘core’.

What does this mean? The core of the network is where the most sensitive data and communications are transmitted; if a foreign government could access the core they could spy on communications – or even disrupt the network entirely.

The edge describes equipment like the wireless transmitters that connect our mobile phones to the network. Although important, there is less risk of government data being stolen, or the network being taken offline.

By allowing Huawei to supply equipment, the UK hopes to lower the overall cost of building the new 5G network. And by limiting Huawei to the edge, they hope to contain potential risk.

But there are two problems. First, the UK does not fully understand the potential risks posed by allowing equipment that may have been compromised into the network. With a backdoor into the network, state-sponsored hackers could still work to take control of the core.

Second, government data may be protected, but our personal data still passes through the edge. It is possible that ordinary peoples’ information is stolen and misused as a result of Huawei’s involvement.

Even if the worst case scenario never happens, the UK’s decision to invite a hostile foreign player into their secure systems is a cyber security lesson for us all. As you use your PC or mobile device, think carefully about who you are inviting in. Every password you share or app you download opens a door that could be used by a hacker. It is always safest to block access whenever you have the chance.
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