It’s been revealed that Chinese firm Huawei could have run a spying operation at the heart of Britain’s Critical National Infrastructure without any political scrutiny for the past ten years.
The extraordinary lapse was published in a damning report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. Former Conservative Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the committee, said he ” could not find strong enough language” to condemn the catalogue of failings. They appear to have been caused by a lack of direct ministerial responsibility. The committee’s report shows that five different Government Departments – the Foreign office, Home office, DTI (now Business Innovation and Science), Cabinet Office and DCMS (Department of Media Culture and Sport) were all aware of different aspects of the Huawei deal – a commercial arrangement with BT, the privatised former national telecomms provider. But none of them stepped in to investigate.
Publication of the report coincides with US President Barack Obama’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in an atmosphere soured by advanced persistent threat (APT) cyber-attacks on Western businesses – attacks that are believed to originate in China. Huawei is not allowed to operate in the United States, and American Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel recently traded insults with a Chinese general at the Shangri-la Co-operation Conference in Singapore. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who got an advance copy of the ISC report on 8th May, has responded by promising an urgent review. However the Chancellor George Osborne has issued a statement in support of inward investment from China, and welcomed the opening of a new Huawei HQ in Reading at the heart of England’s M4 Corridor of high-tech industries.
The security concerns centre on the fact that Huawei polices its own operations, which include the Twenty-First Century Network – the infrastructure for all Britain’s mobile phone networks. Scrutiny comes from a grouping called The Cell, in which three of the big five mobile networks are represented. However the workers in The Cell are employees of Huawei – a situation described by Sir Malcolm as ‘policing themselves’. He and his committee are calling for GCHQ – the Government’s security service – to take over as their boss to remove any possible conflict of interest. Questioned by Future Intelligence, Sir Malcolm confirmed that all Huawei workers must sign the Official Secrets Act and all are security-vetted British nationals. He said the committee agreed unanimously that Huawei workers in The Cell – which checks for bugs and security breaches in the telecommunication network – should as a matter of urgency be taken out of Hauwei’s employment and re-employed by the intelligence centre GCHQ. Hear the full exchange here Rifkind Warren