Senior Tory MPs have expressed alarm about Theresa May’s readiness to give the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei a limited role in supplying the future 5G mobile phone network against the advice of some cabinet ministers, security chiefs and the US.
Huawei will be banned from supplying core parts of the network but will get a role in non-core technology, after leaks from a meeting of the national security council (NSC).
Any potential role for the company in the future network has alarmed senior Conservatives, including Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee; Mark Pritchard, a former member of the joint committee on national security strategy; and the former minister and No 10 adviser George Freeman.
Tugendhat said as part of his role he had been briefed by security officials that it was difficult to make a distinction between core and non-core activities involving 5G because of the speed and capability of the system. “This is a concern that has been raised extremely clearly to me,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Asked if supplying an antennae presented a low risk, Tugendhat said: “No, an antennae obviously carries the communication system and this is exactly the point that was made very clearly to me by one of our Five Eyes intelligence partners.”
He added: “The reality is we are talking about a system here that will need constant upgrading, and every time you do that you’ve got to open up the system to your technology partner to make sure it works.
“The Chinese government is experimenting in extremely – how can I put it politely – adventurous ways of expanding an intelligence state into a domestic infrastructure.
“They are bound by Chinese law and Chinese law does oblige them to cooperate with the security apparatus of the Chinese state. This does mean it is unwise to cooperate on an area of critical national infrastructure like telecoms with a state that can best be described as not always friendly.”
Margot James, the digital minister, appeared to confirm the leaks, tweeting that the advice of GCHQ’s NCSC unit, responsible for monitoring Huawei, was that “we can manage/minimise any risk Huawei might post to telecoms infrastructure and Theresa May is absolutely right to act on that advice”.
The junior minister added, however, subsequently that no final decision had been made on the Chinese firm and 5G supply, despite the leaks from Tuesday’s cabinet level meeting. Whitehall sources indicated their view on Huawei was as James had stated, adding that countries such as Germany also thought the risk was perfectly manageable.
Tory backbenchers’ concerns were underlined by Pritchard and Freeman and by the Conservative MP and former army reserve Bob Seely.
Allowing Huawei to build the UK’s 5G network could expose the UK’s critical national infrastructure to additional ‘risk’ and is causing serious concerns amongst many in the #FiveEyes intelligence community & Parliamentarians with oversight on cyber issues. Time for a rethink….?
— Mark Pritchard MP (@MPritchardUK) April 24, 2019
A bad and short-sighted decision which fails to heed the warnings of US and Australian experiece. I fear that this has not been thought through or treated with the importance it deserves. https://t.co/iOCQI7i0hM via @Telegraph
— Bob Seely MP (@IoWBobSeely) April 23, 2019
Some of the UK’s allies, notably the US, have taken a tougher stance against Huawei. Chinese companies are banned from working on critical telecoms infrastructure in the US. Mike Pence, the vice-president, called on “all our security partners to be vigilant”.
The former US homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said May appeared to be ignoring the advice of her security chiefs.
He told Today: “What we see seems to, from the outside, undercut some of her senior security officials and their recent comments in general about cybersecurity and specifically about Huawei’s poor performance over the last year … I’m not sure what the prime minister was thinking but it seems to be against the advice of some of her security professionals.
“I think it is a little overly rosy and optimistic to suspect that [risks] can be mitigated in new 5G infrastructure … Some are concerns that Huawei represents a future espionage risk, that there will be theft of information and some believe a future sabotage risk.”