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‘Cybersecurity’ issues are really about quest for 5G leadership

Recent international developments in the USA and some reporting around Huawei’s role in UK’s 5G have sharpened focus on the matter of cybersecurity, as defined by the governments of certain countries. However, the real issue is an understanding of what exactly technology is – a competition, or a collaboration.

It was recently reported that the US had instituted sanctions to prevent Huawei from sourcing microchips made using American technology, complicating plans for the rollout of 5G mobile technology in several territories. However, despite claims that the sanctions are informed by national security concerns, statements by key US leaders imply that the real battle is about “technology leadership” in the 5G era.

In his keynote address at the China Initiative Conference this year, US Attorney General William Barr said that “within the next five years, 5G global territory and application dominance will be determined. The question is whether, within this window, the United States and our allies can mount sufficient competition to Huawei to retain and capture enough market share … to avoid surrendering dominance to China.” 

This indicates that matters of national pride are as relevant to the debate as the oft-touted cyber-security concerns. Even the outspoken comments of US President Donald Trump give credence to this view, as he often encourages American firms to try harder to ensure the US is not lagging behind their perceived rivals from China.

“I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” he tweeted last year. “It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind…”

This subjective, nationalistic approach is perhaps understandable. We all would like to see our countries taking their place as leaders on the world stage. However, there are mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of technology companies. The market determines the technology of choice, and sector experts are well placed to rate the levels of service.

On this front, a report by Strategy Analytics, a global technology and media analyst agency rated Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia as the top 3 global 5G RAN vendors in terms of equipment performance, RAN product portfolio, R&D investment and subscriber projections. 

However, the fact of the matter is that believe it or not, there have not been globally accepted standards of cyber-security itself. 

There is, as yet, no objective measure of what is secure and what is not, in the cyber realm. The cyber-security industry, too, is in need of agreed cross-sector standards, before one can start ranking the performance of vendors in various markets. 

In an interview last year, Huawei Rotating Chairman Eric Xu noted that, “technology is technology. Scientists and engineers would prefer a unified global standard so that people can follow this standard to develop better products.”

Cybersecurity itself is certainly a technical issue that requires expertise, and our colleagues at Huawei have been working with governments and industry partners to agree on standards of digital security. 

The same urgent moves are going on in the 5G space, where the new technology has somehow become conflated with the cybersecurity debate. 

The motivation for this consultation is not nationalistic, but to reduce the overall cost and improve return on investment for all of the players in this industry. Great progress has been made on this front between Europe and China, and through concerted industry efforts, we are starting to see a unified global standard for 5G, that industry players can refer to as they develop 5G products.

However, every time 5G or cybersecurity becomes a political or ideological football, this process is stalled. The world market becomes polarised and we separate into our respective territories, duplicating our efforts and building technologies and standards that are not perfectly compatible.  

5G, as an emerging technology, gives us an opportunity to come together, find agreement, and create a platform that is more secure than any that has come before. 

The 5G platform is highly secure. Information transmitted through 5G networks has built-in 256-bit encryption. Hacking into 5G networks would, therefore, require massive computing power, using quantum computers, which are not yet even readily available.

“Cybersecurity is an issue that challenges everyone,” Xu said. “It should, therefore,

get special attention, in the definition of 5G-related standards. 5G is more secure than previous generations of mobile communication technologies.”

It is critical that we return the cybersecurity debate to its essence, which is about technology. Baseless accusations informed by geopolitical manoeuvring or xenophobic tendencies will not improve cybersecurity, but damage it.

Objective standards must be the basis of such a technology-based approach. With this in mind, Huawei is an active member of more than 400 standards organisations, industry alliances, and open source communities.

We proactively contribute to these groups, and over the years we have submitted nearly 60 000 proposals, doing our bit to build a robust industry ecosystem for everyone. Research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics found that Huawei has provided more contributions to end-to-end 5G standards than any other company in the world. 

This commitment to participative standard-setting in multilateral bodies gives the lie to claims of Huawei favouring Chinese interests. 

In March, digital media expert Mike Dano, Editorial Director of Lightreading, wrote that “Huawei being the biggest contributor to the 3GPP’s 5G specs will undoubtedly worry U.S. lawmakers and regulators, who for years have argued the company poses a security threat to the nation. Huawei denies those allegations.”

The setting of standards is a collaborative process, and taking an adversarial approach to technology sets everybody back, especially those who refuse to participate. 

“We must have a vocal presence at the standards bodies that are defining the rules for 5G,” wrote former US intelligence leader Mike Rogers. “We have been woefully absent and need to make participation a priority,” 

Rogers is a former US representative who co-authored the 2012 US government report initially outlining the security threats posed by Chinese equipment vendors, but even he sees the value of multilateral cooperation. 

Shared responsibility

Cybersecurity is a common but differentiated responsibility. Vender, operator, government, and citizens all have different roles to play, and the only way to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are protected is through broad consultation, dialogue and participation.

With this in mind, Huawei is constantly working with governments, industry bodies and operators, in a constructive dialogue on cybersecurity. In the UK, our government relations remain healthy, and Huawei is recognised as an industry leader on cybersecurity, despite Britain’s scrutiny of our equipment being among the toughest in the world.

It’s not all plain sailing, and officials do raise concerns, which we take pains to address, in order to ensure excellence and manage risks. Consistently, the issues raised are around quality and security, and not related to malfeasance or cyber espionage.

Huawei has been operating in Europe for nearly 20 years and the confidence of our customers can be seen as an expression of trust in Huawei’s top-end cybersecurity standards.

To support and enhance these relationships, Huawei has set up the Huawei Cyber Security Transparency Centre in Brussels, a platform to enhance communication and joint innovation with all stakeholders, public and private. It also provides a technical verification and evaluation platform for customers.

We strive to consult all stakeholders in working to develop secure and reliable 5G and cybersecurity standards. Huawei’s relationships with industry stakeholders are open and honest. We can even be critical of each other. 

However, these are the hallmarks of a robust process of engagement and participation. Despite how some see it, technology is not a terrain of struggle and proxy warfare. It’s not about any one nation becoming the “technology leader” of the world, to the detriment of others. 

Technology – and the uses we put it to – is for the good of humanity. It is imperative that all industry players – governments, companies and people – continue to communicate and engage, to set the standards for the developments that will see us through the next century. DM


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