Pointedly expanding its efforts to address Chinese cybersecurity threats, the United States today urged Australia to keep Huawei equipment out of its 5G networks, reports Australia’s Financial Review. U.S. lawmakers and security agencies previously lobbied top U.S. carriers to cut ties with Huawei, but today’s discussions with Australia reach well beyond American borders, suggesting the potentially global scale of the 5G security risk.
According to the report, the heads of the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security personally briefed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on “U.S. concerns about Chinese involvement in 5G networks,” including “security risks posed by Huawei’s potential involvement.” The report said that “Beijing’s cyber espionage was among the ‘top two’ risks on the U.S.-Australia cyber security agenda,” as Huawei is beholden to the Chinese government, and allowing China to gain control of a 5G network could enable it to control “everything.”
In addition to benefiting from Chinese government funding, Huawei’s organization includes a Chinese government committee for reasons the company apparently has not explained. U.S. officials have long suggested that the company’s hardware could include backdoors, permitting Chinese government monitoring of users’ communications, and eventually controlling public infrastructure in the 5G era. Even without a major role in the U.S. market, however, Huawei has grown to become the largest telecommunications manufacturer in the world, and it’s worked with many leading companies on both mobile devices and standards.
Australia’s government has been concerned about Huawei for years. The country banned Huawei from bidding on building its high-speed national broadband network in 2012, and renewed the ban in 2013 even after Turnbull — at that point the Communications Minister for a recently elected coalition government — supported a review. Briefings from Australian national security agencies convinced the new government to maintain the ban.
Despite government concerns, Huawei has continued to lobby for a role in the Australian market, and has recently forged deals with carriers Optus and Vodafone. Huawei was included in an Australian Department of Communications 5G working group late last year, and carrier Optus promised this month to become Australia’s first 5G carrier in early 2019, using some Huawei equipment.
In statements, Optus said that it “saw no need for the type of Government intervention that is reportedly being considered in other jurisdictions,” and Vodafone said that it “has rigorous controls in place to ensure all statutory and regulatory requirements, and best practice security standards, are met and maintained.” It’s unclear whether Australia’s government will completely freeze Huawei out, but the report suggests that the company’s strong investments in 5G development have placed it ahead of European telecom hardware companies, making its offerings difficult to ignore.