5G ROLLOUT

Amid Cyber Espionage Concerns, Will India Let Huawei In?

Surya Gangadharan New Delhi 8 April 2019

This story is not apocryphal; it actually happened in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan some three Diwali seasons ago. Hundreds of Chinese traders, merchants, retailers and manufacturers had gathered to debate and exchange ideas on an issue of top priority: What ‘Made in China’ items would find the best market in the days before Diwali!

The proceedings were conducted entirely in Mandarin, the food served was authentic Chinese and the Indians present got a bird’s eye view as to how the Chinese do business in a foreign land. What was notable was their knowledge and understanding of the complex and diverse Indian market, clearly the result of extensive ground based study.

As India prepares to roll out 5G, reportedly in a limited manner towards the later part of this year with the full monty in 2020, the expectation is the Chinese would have done their homework and are probably pushing every button to ensure they walk away with the honours when the winning bid is announced in the coming months.

The problem for India is that one of the foreign 5G technology players in the running, the Chinese company Huawei, is reportedly the market leader in 5G and flush with cash. It was declared persona non grata in the United States last August, officially banned from doing 5G business in America. U.S. allies Australia, Canada and New Zealand followed suit. It stemmed from fears that Huawei could use its access to telecommunication networks to engage in cyber espionage. Or it could steal intellectual property, as the U.S. has already accused it of doing.

Now comes a critical assessment from the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCH), the British equivalent of America’s National Security Agency. This is their second consecutive assessment with unnamed officials in London quoted by the New York Times as indicating “significant technical issues” in Huawei’s engineering processes. GCH warned that it can provide “only limited assurance” about being able to manage the long term security risks concerning Huawei equipment deployed in Britain.

The GCH report noted “significant concerns about vulnerability management in the long term” and that Huawei’s software component management is defective “leading to higher vulnerability rates and significant risk of unsupportable software”. The report frankly admitted GCH could not verify that the software running on its 4G cell towers is the same software provided by Huawei for source code review.

The irony is GCH oversees the Huawei Cybersecurity Evaluation Centre in England that belongs to Huawei. It employs Huawei personnel but is run by GCH. In India too, Huawei runs a sophisticated R&D centre in Bengaluru but it’s not clear whether Indian intelligence and other agencies have the expertise to monitor and evaluate what Huawei is doing and how it functions.

Reports about Huawei’s links to the People’s Liberation Army are well known and its former vice-chairwoman was an officer in the Ministry of State Security, China’s premier intelligence agency. Recent constitutional changes in Beijing make it necessary for Chinese companies, wherever they maybe, to cooperate with their government.

This has deepened apprehensions about the motives and actions of Chinese firms worldwide, no less in India. In the case of 5G, it becomes even more sensitive as it is not only 100 times faster than the current 4G but will be pervasive, impacting every aspect of our lives. The Internet of Things, for instance, will be run on 5G networks, which means everything from smart cities to energy and transport grids and potentially lethal military operations. In this situation, having critical infrastructure in the hands of a foreign entity raises serious security issues.

India is reportedly under considerable pressure from the U.S. to not allow Huawei a foot in the 5G door. Other 5G contenders are South Korea’s Samsung, Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia, NEC of Japan and two U.S. firms—Verizon and Qualcomm. The successful bidders (there could be more than one), would have to tie up with one or the other of India’s telecom/internet players Jio, Airtel and Vodafone.

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