Letting “A Fox Loose in A Chicken Coop”: U.K. Intel Anxious about Huawei Deal

GCHQ leaders are not persuaded, and a source within the agency – and agency which has the most sophisticated telecoms expertise in the U.K.– told The Times that handing Huawei access the U.K. telecom networks would be akin to “letting a fox loose in a chicken coop.”

A former high-level official at No. 10 Downing Street confirmed to The Times that GCHQ was “profoundly worried” about handing the firm a role in the U.K. 5G network, adding: “It would be f****** preposterous if we did.”

A senior official in Johnson cabinet said that “GCHQ is insisting on very strict controls but stopped short of recommending a full ban.” The official also told The Times: “GCHQ is entirely comfortable with the way the government is approaching this decision. The government is looking carefully at expert technical evidence from GCHQ, and the tight controls needed to make this work. This fox in the hen house stuff is nonsense.”

GCHQ officials, for their part, said that if Huawei was approved to build Britain’s 5G network, the government should at least insist that Huawei access will be restricted to the “edges” of the network.

The Sunday Times reported that the Huawei deal has split rival British intelligence agencies. The more technical services, such as GCHQ, have been adamant in their opposition to the deal, while “human intelligence” spy agencies such as MI5 appear to believe that the Chinese spying-through-Huawei threat is more manageable.

Last week, Andrew Parker, the outgoing director-general of MI5, said he did not believe that intelligence sharing between the United States and the United Kingdom would be threatened if Huawei gained access to the U.K. new mobile phone network.

But Alex Younger, the director of MI6, last year questioned whether the United Kingdom should be “comfortable with Chinese ownership of these technologies.”

Younger pointedly noted that three of the U.K.“Five Eyes” security partners — the United States, Australia, and New Zealand have banned Huawei from their 5G networks. Canada is still debating the issue.

Last Monday. A high-level delegation representing several U.S. intelligence agencies flew to London in a last-ditch effort to persuade the U.K. government to reject an initial decision to allow Huawei to supply some “non-core” components of the future 5G network (“U.S. in Last-Ditch Effort to Sway U.K.’s Huawei Decision,” HSNW, 13 January 2020).

Huawei began to do business in the United Kingdom in 2010, and has been closely monitored by GCHQ since then. To allay the security concerns about the company’s equipment, Huawei agreed to fund a research center – the Huawei Cyber-Security Evaluation Center (HCSEC) – to monitor the Huawei-manufactured gear. The center’s oversight board is chaired by Ciaran Martin, a senior GCHQ official and head of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

The Huawei-funded center has been testing different pieces of equipment from Huawei, and the software which governs them, and has repeatedly expressed serious reservations about the security risks posed by Huawei technology.

The HCSEC’s latest annual report, published last March, said: “HCSEC’s work has continued to identify concerning issues in Huawei’s approach to software development bringing significantly increased risk to U.K. operators, which requires ongoing management and mitigation.”

The Timesnotes that the next annual report is expected to echo the warning.

Huawei well-oiled public relations team is fighting back. Victor Zhang, the company’s vice-president, in an article two days ago for The Sunday Times, has attacked the United States for spreading “baseless speculation” and warned a ban on the company would cost the U,K, economy £7 billion. Zhang also said that it would take seven years to remove Huawei from the U.K. existing telecoms networks.