EU states have warned of the political risks around suppliers to new 5G mobile networks, in a sign of a toughening European stance on perceived security threats from Huawei and other Chinese companies.
A report unveiled on Wednesday said that non-EU businesses bidding to build the new generation systems could be “subject to interference” when they have strong links to their country’s government, are vulnerable to official pressure, or work under laws that lack “democratic checks and balances”.
The document — produced by a security group comprising the 28 member states and supported by the European Commission — is the latest move towards tighter European scrutiny of 5G and other critical infrastructure in response to concerns over both Chinese influence and US pressure.
It also opens a door for member states to invoke its findings when considering their future business dealings with companies such as Huawei.
Julian King, the EU’s security union commissioner, said the potentially far-reaching uses of 5G networks created an obvious risk of exploitation by “bad actors, state or non-state . . . including through the supply-chain relationship”.
“If existing telecoms networks are an attractive target, this logically is an even more attractive target,” said Sir Julian. “That means we need to look even more carefully than we have before at the suppliers, both from a technical point of view and non-technical vulnerabilities.”
The report — which draws on 5G risk assessments drawn up by all EU countries — stresses the need for states to build long-term relationships of trust with suppliers and curb vulnerabilities from a “lack of diversity in equipment and solutions used”. While the document does not name any companies or countries, a further paper due by the end of the year will propose specific measures to deal with risks, which could include branding certain products insecure.
Asked if the subjective nature of the tests for political risk still left a “fig leaf” for countries to use Huawei products, Sir Julian shot back: “It doesn’t look like a fig leaf to me”.
Critics including the US government say EU countries have been slow to deal with the potential problems posed by Huawei, given the speed at which 5G is being tested, auctioned and rolled out by the largest telecoms companies across the continent. European countries including Poland have signed or discussed bilateral agreements with Washington, which has warned it could curb security and intelligence co-operation with countries using Huawei products.
Huawei denies it presents a security risk and insists it is independent of the Chinese government. When Brussels in March launched the work published today, the company welcomed it as an “objective and proportionate” approach to 5G security.
Concerns raised by Huawei sceptics include that its founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a former Chinese People’s Liberation Army member. They also point to the access Chinese security agencies can potentially gain to businesses under domestic law.