Let your honesty shine

Posted on Friday, February 22, 2019

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, shine

Like it shines on me

Title Reference: 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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