China syndromeWorries in the U.K. over Chinese-made phone equipment

Published 12 June 2009

BT is engaged in a massive upgrade of its 21CN network backbone; trouble is, at the core of this upgrade is equipment acquired from Chinese networking giant Huawei, a company Western intelligence services have long suspected of being a front for Chinese intelligence; fear of an undetectable “kill switch” that could disable critical communications

BT is engaged in a massive upgrade of its  21CN network backbone. At the core of this upgrade is equipment acquired from Chinese networking giant Huawei. Trouble is, Western intelligence service have long suspected Huawei of being a front for China’s People’s Liberation Army — or, at the very least, a willing tool of the Chinese government. The company is denying accusations that it is colluding with the Beijing government and could cause massive disruption to U.K. communications in a future cyber conflict.

Chris Williams writes that concerns have been raised at the level of the U.K. cabinet by senior intelligence officials over the presence of the firm’s equipment at the center of BT’s 21CN network backbone upgrade. They particularly fear an undetectable “kill switch” that could disable critical communications if relations with China seriously deteriorate.

Similar cybersecurity disquiet has recently frustrated Huawei’s progress in India, a massive and growing market for networking equipment. Reports also emerged last year that the Australian intelligence establishment was investigating the firm’s involvement in national broadband upgrade work.

Official fears over Huawei’s equipment are typically founded on the firm’s origins. Cybersecurity hawks point to its unusual private ownership structure and opaque accounting as evidence of its alleged government ties. The firm was founded in 1988 by Ren Zhengfei, a former People’s Liberation Army technology research chief.

The firm has more than 87,000 employees, and says more than 40 percent of them work in research and development.

Whitehall concerns over BT’s Huawei equipment recently received political backing from David Blunkett. The former home secretary told Williams he planned to press ministers for an ongoing program of government security auditing. Blunkett’s office said the meeting had gone ahead, but declined to discuss its outcome ahead of the U.K. government’s forthcoming cybersecurity strategy.

A well-placed source in the U.K. broadband sector scoffed at suggestions officials could feasibly monitor potential threats hidden inside Chinese equipment. “Huawei kit is everywhere,” he said. “It’s about a third of the cost of their competitors, who make theirs in China anyway.”