Security threats from Chinese companies building 5G networks could end up “putting all of us at risk” if they are not tackled quickly, according to a former security minister.
Speaking to Sky News, Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord who served under Gordon Brown as a security minister, urged the government to set up a unit reporting directly to the prime minister to monitor the risk posed by Chinese equipment in 5G.
5G has been hailed as the next great leap for mobile communications, enabling everything from smart cities to hologram calls.
However, the best 5G technology comes from Chinese companies, raising the fear that China’s government could have ground-level access to – even control of – the UK’s critical data infrastructure.
“We’ve got to see there’s a risk,” Lord West said. “Yes, we want 5G, but for goodness sake we need to do all of these things to make sure it’s not putting all of us at risk.”
In April, the United States banned Chinese multinationals Huawei and ZTE – both specialists in 5G – from selling equipment to the federal government.
In August, the Australian government banned the same two firms from supplying technology for its 5G network, a decision foreign minister Marise Payne described as necessary for “the protection of Australia’s national security”.
In a statement, Huawei called the decision “politically motivated, not the result of a fact-based, transparent, or equitable decision-making process,” adding that “there is no fundamental difference between 5G and 4G network architecture… 5G has stronger guarantees around privacy and security protection than 3G and 4G”.
Robert Hannigan, former director of GCHQ, told Sky News an outright ban in the UK would not make 5G safe.
“The best companies in 5G are probably the Chinese ones and there aren’t many alternatives,” he said, before warning that new measures were needed to test the security of the network.
“We do need to find a way of scrutinising what is being installed in our network, and how it is being overseen and how it is being controlled and how it’s being upgraded in the future. And we have to find a more effective way of doing that at scale.”
In April, GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre warned ZTE could pose a national security risk to the UK.
Two months later, the UK’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, a group set up by the government to monitor the Chinese firm, announced that it had “only limited assurance” that Huawei posed no threat to national security
“It was a bit of a warning to Huawei,” said Mr Hannigan. “They needed to get better at cooperating and take this more seriously.”
The difficulty for the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre is knowing for certain that the code it vets and approves is the same code that is going into networks.
“That’s been a persistent problem,” said Mr Hannigan. “That needs more work.”
The government has put £200m into the development of 5G. Last month, the first 5G pilot centre launched in the West Midlands, testing the technology before a national roll-out.
BT, which uses Huawei to supply parts for its network, told Sky News that it would “apply the same stringent security measures and controls to 5G when we start to roll it out, in line with continued guidance from government”.