China's role in 5G 'much bigger' than Huawei, British spy chief says

Key Points
  • Jeremy Fleming, director of U.K. cybersecurity agency GCHQ, said Monday that Western states needed to understand threats and opportunities arising from Chinese technology.
  • He added that 5G security was about “more than Huawei,” and that the U.K. was still considering the company’s role in its network.
  • Telecoms CEOs warned at the Mobile World Congress on Monday that excluding Huawei from 5G networks could damage innovation and competition.
Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, delivers his address at the 35th IISS Fullerton Lecture in Singapore on February 25, 2019.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

Security agencies must work with governments to understand the opportunities and threats presented by Chinese technologies, the head of a British intelligence service said on Monday.

Speaking at a summit in Singapore, Jeremy Fleming, director of U.K. cybersecurity agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), said countries that qualified as "cyber powers" had a responsibility to protect their citizens from external threats.

"A nation is a cyber power if it is able to direct or influence the behavior of others in cyberspace … It has to be world class in safeguarding the cyberhealth of its citizens, businesses, and institutions — it must protect the digital homeland," he said.

Threats from China

Describing 5G as one of the most impactful technologies of any era, Fleming emphasized that the U.K. has not yet made a decision on Huawei's inclusion in its domestic 5G network.

"We have to understand the opportunities and threats from China's technological offer, understand the global nature of supply chains and service provision irrespective of the flag of the supplier (and) take a clear view on the implications of China's technological acquisition strategy in the West," he said. "(We must) help our governments decide which parts of this expansion can be embraced, which need risk management, and which will always need a sovereign, or allied, solution."

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Fleming added that GCHQ had been "crystal clear" with Huawei that it would not compromise on the security improvements it expected from the company.

"(But) 5G security is about more than just Huawei … China's place in the era of globalized technology is much bigger than just one telecommunications equipment company," he said. "How we deal with it will be crucial for prosperity and security way beyond 5G contracts."

Risking innovation

Several countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, have barred Huawei from supplying components for 5G networks, citing national security concerns. Huawei has repeatedly denied the claims made against it.

The U.S. — which has been blocking the Chinese tech giant from selling equipment in its domestic market for several years — has reportedly been urging its allies to ban Huawei from their domestic 5G networks. Germany and the U.K. have begun to consider the extent to which Huawei should participate in their 5G rollouts, but both countries have stressed that no decisions have been made.

However, chief executives in the telecoms sector said at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on Monday that refusing to include Huawei in 5G rollouts could be a mistake.

Speaking at the event, Vodafone CEO Nick Read warned that banning the Chinese firm could be "hugely disruptive" and damage competition in Europe's supply chains.

Marc Allera, CEO of British telecoms firm EE, later told CNBC that excluding Huawei from 5G networks could hamper innovation.

"If we were to look at replacing parts of our vendor ecosystem, that would mean spending time on replacing like-for-like kit rather than innovating," he said.

Meanwhile, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri told CNBC's Karen Tso that regulatory hurdles would cause Europe to lag behind the U.S. and China in rolling out 5G technology.

Superfast 5G mobile internet is expected to revolutionize the digital economy by enabling new technologies such as self-driving cars and the internet of things.

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