The Heathrow airport immigration officer asked me why I had
come to the UK and I told him that Huawei was having an event the next day in a
London hotel. “The’ve had a spot of trouble in the press lately, no?” he
replied. I said, “Yes, and that’s why I came: to hear what they have to say.”
Actually, the company did not breathe a word directly about the
issues that are causing difficulties in many Western countries, although the
US, Canada and Australia stand out.
For those who have been on a Himalayan retreat in the recent
past, after months of sabre rattling, the US requested that Canada detain Meng
Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO and founder Ren Zhengfei’s daughter for extradition to
the US on (at the time) unspecified charges. The charges have since been filed
and they cover a range of items discussed below.
This seemed to have brought a number of countries to make
declarations about doing or not doing business with the Chinese vendor.
- US companies have been prohibited from buying Chinese
gear for several years now.
- Australia said it would not allow Huawei gear.
- After some vacillation, or ‘misinterpretation’,
New Zealand said it would not prohibit Huawei.
- The UK first said it would not allow the equipment
in any network but then recently said that whatever security risks there might
be could be managed.
- Germany went the other way, initially saying
there was no problem and then expressing doubts.
- Canadian operator Telus said it would not buy
Huawei gear but there has been no prohibition from the government itself which
probably wishes it had not had to get into this mess. Just as President Trump
used the Canadians as proxies in his fight with China by getting them to detain
Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese are punishing the Canadians as a way to signal their
displeasure to Trump.
There are a number of substantive issues in question or at
least invoked by the US government when it comes to Huawei.
- The company’s close connection to the Chinese
military and unclear ownership makes some nervous that Huawei equipment has some
type of ‘Trojan horse’ that would allow China to shut down or disrupt telecom networks
in the event of war. No evidence of this has ever been presented. Advocates of
this theory point out the millions of lines of code and thus the difficulty of proving
that it does or does not exist.
- The US accuses Huawei of circumventing US
sanctions on Iran and other pariah states. This is indeed an offense under US
law although, in the case of Iran, some European countries oppose US policy and
have even established mechanisms to trade with Iran while (they hope) avoiding
legal problems with the US. The moral basis of this charge is, thus,
questionable or at least questioned by some countries.
- Also in the list of charges sent to Canada was
the theft of intellectual property. This is an ‘old story’. A decade ago, this
was widely suspected and Cisco among others successfully prosecuted Chinese
companies by showing the code had been directly copied. At this week’s London
event, Huawei emphasized several times its patents and its investment in R&D,
which it says are greater than the rest of the telecom equipment industry combined
(although it did not specify how it defined the ‘rest of the industry’).
- The Economist and other news sources have
pointed out that a 2017 law gives the Chinese government sweeping powers to
demand that Chinese companies help with issues of national security, which
obviously could mean anything. The opacity of the Chinese legal system makes
observers even more uncomfortable about how this might be used.
However, The Economist also says, as do many other European
news sources, that this is mostly just maneuvering in the US government’s larger
battle with the Chinese government over a trade deal, that if the two come to
an agreement, charges and the ban against the company will be dropped or weakened
to such an extent that it is no longer relevant.
Huawei’s challenges are not trivial nor is their impact
limited to the company itself or the countries that have imposed a ban. The
GSMA was rumored to be wanting to discuss the issue at its board meeting around
Mobile World Congress (next week in Barcelona) but the association called such
reports ‘inaccurate’. Ericsson said the controversy was bad for the industry as
a whole (even though it is one of the beneficiaries) because it was making
operators hold off on 5G decisions.
I am not going to give an opinion
on the substantive issues being raised. I will note that ‘backdoors’ have been
a feature of telecom equipment since the time the first operator realized that no
one would notice if she stayed on the line and listened to other people’s telephone
calls. The US may just be upset that they do not have as ready access to Huawei
equipment and cannot be sure that this access is not being shared with its
great geopolitical rival.
Instead I want to indulge in a
little ‘science fiction’ and imagine that this US ban gets carried to its
logical (perhaps irrational) conclusion and there are countries that permit
Huawei equipment and countries that do not. Furthermore, if security forces are
that paranoid about Huawei equipment touching their networks, they should insist
that there be no interconnection with Huawei ‘infected’ networks.
That would create islands or
perhaps archipelagos of countries that had direct communications with each
other, and those that did not. (I almost called this Islands in the Stream but
much as I like Hemmingway, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers did not impress me.)
How would we communicate between
islands? Between the US and say the UK? Smoke signals? Morse code?
I am exaggerating. While there is
talk of China intercepting US communications, as I said above, that is mostly
smoke. The US has had the capability and they probably know there is little
they can do to stop the Chinese from having it, even if Huawei (or ZTE) did not
sell another switch, another base station. Instead they are worried that China
would order Huawei to shut down its networks in the event of a conflict. The
Economist recommends mitigating this by requiring that one vendor not have 100%
share of national networks, which is relatively easy to manage.
Once we get past the issue that
the Xing is reading our emails and watching our cat videos (he is; get over it;
and so are the Americans), then interconnection becomes a matter of perimeter security.
Probably better to use more advanced security protocols like zero trust networking..
But if it is a trade dispute then
we are likely to be in this situation for some time. Neither side appears to be
backing down on this issue.
And if decisions will be made by
the President or the Congress based on fear or testosterone – without the
benefit of facts, without leveraging technology to manage risk – then we are at
risk of heading into a new dark age, trapped in our islands, believing we are
the only good guys and everyone else is bad.
Let your honesty shine, shine,
Like it shines on me
This may be more obscure than some of the others but at least it comes from a
well-known 1960s folk-rock group, Simon and Garfunkel. The
Only Living Boy in New York is off their last studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and was the
B-side of Cecilia. In my overheated
imagination I thought it had to do with a drug deal (Tom, get your plane right
on time / I know your part’ll go fine / Fly down to Mexico etc.) but Wikipedia
says Paul Simon wrote it, depressed, because Art Garfunkel had gone to Mexico
to act in the movie Catch 22. Mine is
more romantic or novelistic I guess and works with the lines Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine now / … / Like it
shines on me / The only living boy in New York. Here I liked it for the implication
that “I am honest and you are not” underlying much of the US’s fight with Huawei.
Simon apparently really meant it that way (which connects it even more with the
Huawei story). With my drug deal interpretation, I assumed the singer was
exhorting ‘Tom’ to look honest as he came through customs just like the ‘only
living boy in New York’ would.
The Only Living Boy In New York lyrics by Paul Simon ©
Universal Music Publishing Group
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