Technical Tensions: Huawei and 5G

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By Anushka Saxena

Amidst geopolitical conflicts and trade wars around the globe, the ‘x’ generation of the 21st century is faced with a seemingly unresolvable issue; a middle ground situation for nations around the world – whether or not to install high-speed, reliable network connections provided by the world’s 5G patent leader, Huawei Technologies. 

A Chinese telecom hardware and software giant, Huawei has been doing rounds in controversial news around the globe recently, after being banned by the United States on the grounds that the company’s 5G is being used by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to spy and collect data through network provision and core traffic services. The fact that Huawei CEO and co-founder Ren Zhengfei has been an active part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the CCP, fuelled by the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, steered the US security policy to ban Huawei on account of national cybersecurity concerns. Passed with a bipartisan consensus between the Democrats and the Republicans, the “Defending America’s 5G Future Act” would prohibit even the US President from lifting the ban in the future, without explicit approval from Congress.  From a policy perspective, China is not much different in dealing with national cybersecurity concerns – not only has the country banned the use of WhatsApp, Facebook and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), but has also provided state-controlled substitutes like WeChat for the same. This allows the Chinese government to keep a track on public social media activity, heavily regulate and moderate content and even ban the use of certain words like “#MeToo” and, briefly, the letter “n” in order to control dissent and disintegrate flow of provocative information to the masses.

5G is a revolutionary technology that drastically enhances data analytics, automation, machine-to-machine connectivity and network speed. While an average 4G network can cater to a population of 2000 per square kilometre, a 5G network provides the benefits mentioned above to a population of about 2.6 million people per square kilometre. For wide-area networks, a 5G network can capacitate a traditional base station’s network service by 20 times, while keeping it 3 times smaller than 4G.

Since its inception, Huawei has not only been a company with a futuristic vision towards telecom equipment building and network provision, but it has also been the major provider of 3G and 4G networks around the world. Owning 20% of the world’s total 5G technology patents, Huawei runs 50% of the network and equipment provided in the domain. Moreover, its market reach is unbeatable, even for competitors like Samsung, ZTE and Ericsson, primarily due to its low-cost offerings. Huawei’s newest, groundbreaking mobile phone model, the Mate X, is on run to be the first ‘foldable’  smartphone in the world, competing alongside Samsung’s ‘Galaxy Fold’. Its first 5G compatible device, Mate 20 X has already flooded Chinese markets, making millions in Yuan on just preorders. China is known to have sight of citizens’ information through heavy smartphone surveillance, and deploys methods of spying through technology to gain information and impose communication blackouts. Moreover, Chinese officials working in a high-office in the FBI and the CIA have had a history of espionage and secret intelligence breaches, examples of which are Larry Wu-Tai Chin (who sold US secrets to China in the 1900s through his post in the CIA Information broadcasting segment), and Chi Mak (an America-based engineer who supplied sensitive defense information to China till 2007). 

Heavily funded by the CPC, the company makes extensive investments in research, development and analytics, spending a lump-sum of $15.1 billion on this in 2018 alone. As of now, the company owns 40 base station commercial contracts worldwide, 6 of which are in India.

Since US sanctions on Huawei entered the global technology market, a conundrum struck the core of the US’ Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia , and New Zealand. Formed with the signing of the UK-USA Act in a post-Second-world war context, the Five-Eyes came together as a highly secretive intelligence alliance of five English-speaking countries, so as to exchange information of foreign communications operations, traffic analysis and decryption analysis. While the US has been clear on its stance, the other four ‘eyes’ have expressed concerns to varying degrees – while Australia and New Zealand have been firm in banning Huawei and Canada is on road to conduct 5G trials with Huawei, the UK is dealing with a national dilemma on the issue. Not only has the company lost the smartphone market in the US, but it also deals to provide network services to top American firms like Google and Arm Holdings SoftBank technologies by SoftBank. As per a statement by a statement by US President Donald Trump in the 2019 G20 Summit, the only undercut for its sanctions is that Huawei will be able to buy high-tech telecom gear from the United States firms, as this will raise no national security concerns. The exact terms of the reprieve in restrictions have been left unspecified by the US. 

In light of the US’ tomb-stoning claims on Huawei’s unreliability, the tech company prepped to stick to the rules and stay ahead of any competition. As a result, on August 9, 2019, Huawei announced its own Operating System for Huawei devices, in case Google revoked Android support on Huawei devices too. Titled HongMeng OS (or Harmony OS), this proprietary system is nothing like iOS or Android; not only is it open-source for app developers, but it also features an ecosystem familiar to Android, yet  smarter and faster. Of course, it will be some time before HongMeng OS becomes a common system developer for mid-range Huawei Huawei smartphones.

Being staunch allies of the US, the UK under the leadership of Boris Johnson, was quick to halt Huawei’s core service provision. However, their cheap 5G roll-out rates and affordable handsets have doubled the dilemmas for the Brexit-stricken country. Ren, told Sky News that Britain had a “very important” decision to make about the rollout. He added, “I think they won’t say no to us as long as they go through those rigorous tests and look at it in a serious manner. I think if they do say no, it won’t be to us.” Even though the UK’s skepticism towards China’s Huawei is heavily fuelled by statements of the US, not all Huawei footprint has been wiped off. Despite US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warnings that if a country adopts Huawei technology, the US “won’t be able to share” information with them and will scale back operations of other American firms in the UK, not only are 5G research and trials still underway in the latter country, but the British Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) mentioned that excluding Huawei network services would “lower security standards.” 

The response to the US ban on Huawei was diverse (among the allies). While the UK is still debating the issue, New Zealand and Australia decided to completely ban Huawei’s 5G, and Germany was considering it. However, in August 2019, German officials said that they would not exclude Huawei from 5G network development. Other reports suggest that Germany’s security authorities would still investigate whether Huawei posed a threat. On the other hand, the national security concerns of the West were paid no heed to in South-East Asia. Not only did Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines , and Indonesia welcome Huawei’s 5G Network roll-outs, but they have also been loyal telecom equipment consumers of Huawei for a long time. Even the ASEAN remained unaffected by the US’ claims, ever since the increased dependence of the bloc on Chinese trade and technology. Moreover, Huawei has also invested approximately $800 million to build a factory in Brazil for 5G roll-out. Not only has the Bolsonaro-led government welcomed the tech giant with open arms, but it has also announced an auction for the 5G Spectrum in Brazil, which is expected to be one of the biggest worldwide auctions in the tech field.

How this affects National Security

With technology infesting every nook and cranny of national socio-political and economic space, cybersecurity, cyberwarfare and security breaches are a common defense and policy threat for countries. Such threats can cause instabilities or shutdowns of national systems, empower the theft of extremely sensitive information and allow attacks from hackers, non-state actors and even terrorists. An example of this is the phishing attack of April 2019 on Wipro, India’s fourth-largest IT company. The multi-month phishing attack, allegedly sponsored by state-owned actors, disrupted Wipro’s private email network and affected thousands of their customers, despite the industry-leading cybersecurity measures that the company employed. 

With the rise of non-traditional security threats in the Information Age, national security concerns have become a priority. Cyberwarfare blurs the line between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’, allowing extremist civilians with layman resources, often with the help of certain miscreant non-state actors, to launch large-scale cyberattacks and engage in hacking and espionage. This leads to the leaking of very sensitive information, the spread of violent extremism and monetary losses going into billions. US concerns over Huawei are understandable, given China’s history of spying and the company’s coziness with the CCP, especially in the US-China trade war scenario. The Chinese Cybersecurity Law of 2017, which entitles the Chinese government to have unrestricted access to the information resources of Chinese tech companies, further complicates matters. In this light, China is playing a bigoted game that puts the leaders of China in-charge of what goes in and out of the country, in terms of information and communications. A great example of this is China’s ‘Great Firewall’ technology, which is the CPC’s basket of technologies and legislations to help them control the internet, domestically. This Great Firewall supports hundreds of Chinese VPNs like Baidu, Alibaba and Renren, the domestic substitutes for Google, Amazon and WhatsApp. In 2015, China even launched a cyber-weapon as a blockade to the launch of an ‘anti-censorship’ software. While China walks the path of cyber-domination and internet control, it leverages its technical potentials to create one-sided wins for itself.

India’s national Cybersecurity – the ambiguity in technical action

In India, cybersecurity threats are becoming rampant, with the public sector being most vulnerable, reportedly under China’s influence. With breaches in 10 Indian websites at the hands of Pakistani hackers, the ‘Pakistan Haxor group’, the 2017 data theft in the food delivery brand Zomato and the leak of India’s sensitive ‘Scorpene’ submarine competency files, it is no hidden fact that the country is susceptible to massive cyber-crimes. 

According to a recent Research And Development Corporation (RAND) study, China is preparing for a form of “intelligentized warfare” that uses Artificial intelligence (AI) to paralyze systems and create spy networks, a report that the Indian Department of Telecom (DoT) is well aware of. Even during the Indo-China Doklam standoff of 2017, China was quick to unleash cyberwarfare propaganda and spy operations on India. The cybersecurity threats India could potentially face at the hands of Huawei-empowered 5G networks include that of China gaining resources relevant to be able to dominate the Indian market, and their ability to lay hands on private-public VPNs and gain access to sensitive documentation. With ongoing controversies and the CCP’s cyber-belligerent tendencies, how safe is it for India and the Indian market to trust Huawei’s 5G? To a large extent, the answer lies in being observant of the colossal potential Indian tech has in creating its own 5G network. Indigenizing India’s telecom, by laying out long-term policy plans and funding existing telecom infrastructure will be a big factor in securing India’s telecom industry from cybersecurity threats, a strategy bearing much resemblance to China’s policy of technical independence and telecom ownership.

India’s version of the Huawei problem is somewhat unique: its telecom sector is a complex market, dominated by direct-to-consumer services and private investments from wealthy stakeholders, unlike the Chinese telecom policy, which undercuts tech companies’ corporate interests to serve the greater interests of the government. India possesses the second-largest base of internet subscribers in the world (as of December 2018). The Indian telecom industry is an oligopoly market dominated by three players – Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Reliance Jio. While Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have been avid consumers of Huawei equipment for their 3G and 4G Network services, Reliance Jio works on a pan-India partnership with Samsung, and aims to continue doing so, even for its 5G plans. 

After Huawei appeared on the US Ministry of Commerce blacklist, almost no nation in the world wanted to be caught in the vendetta, including India. To avoid contention further beyond border disputes and US-China conflicts, the DoT announced that Huawei will not be allowed to indulge in collaboration with local Indian firms. Not only this, but there is also a prevailing uncertainty on whether or not Huawei will be invited for India’s upcoming 5G  network trials, according to Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. In response to this decision, Beijing threatened reverse sanctions on Indian firms operating in China. Not only did China actively propagate Huawei’s assistance in uplifting India’s economic and telecommunications scenario, but also hoped that India would take an autonomous, evidence-based decision on its 5G Network model.

To purge the heat, India will finally take up a route similar to the one tested by the UK and one about to be adopted by many nations in years to come – keeping Huawei equipment strictly non-core, i.e., letting network traffic pass through Indian base stations without letting Huawei’s 5G drive the ‘brain’ of the system. In my opinion, not only should this be a universally-recognized middle ground, but also a means to prevent global geopolitics from what is being termed as a “Technological Cold War.” Indian telecom is a market with low profitability, and is needy of technical partnership. In this light, securing Huawei’s ‘edge equipment’ to reduce deployment costs and establish a consumer base for a speedy and reliable 5G network, while assessing Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia and Cisco for core (5G Network) trials would be a  near win-win situation. Avoiding a huge risk of sanctions from both China and the US is the need of the hour for India, and the country must be vigilant in risk-assessment and muted action.

Anushka Saxena is a politics analyst at Vistas News

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