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Huawei lashes out at Government

Huawei says politics, not technical security risks, are behind decisions relating to the company’s 5G technology in New Zealand.

Huawei New Zealand deputy managing director Andrew Bowater did not pull any punches when addressing business leaders and politicians at the China Business Summit in Auckland.

Huawei has always maintained there is no evidence to show there was a technical risk posed by Spark using Huawei technology in the rollout of its 5G network, but Bowater went further with his comments at Monday’s summit.

The company had passed every test and there had never been any evidence of wrongdoing or links to espionage, he said, adding that if there was any evidence to support the “classic fearmongering” surrounding Huawei, the company would have already been kicked out of the market a long time ago.

There were sensitivities, and Huawei was more vulnerable because it was a Chinese-headquartered company, Bowater said.

“We get it.”

But if the Government maintained an open mind, any potential risks could be mitigated.

"Things got very big, very hot, very quickly."

Huawei was not aware of any new security concerns around its equipment following the change of Government, so assessments by the GCSB had “blindsided” the company, he said. "We think this could have been handled a lot better."

“Things got very big, very hot, very quickly,” he said.

Bowater made a point of saying the company had always had a good relationship with the Government, until recently.

Contrary to some reporting, New Zealand has not banned Huawei.

The law that governs whether or not Huawei will be allowed into the network here sees telcos like Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees submit plans for their networks to the GCSB, which then decides whether or not they meet its security requirements.

The current decision over Spark’s 5G network is still open. The GCSB identified “significant national security risks” in the initial application, but Spark could still choose to work through the agency’s concerns.

The idea of the legislation is to depoliticise the issue, and to date, GCSB Minister Andrew Little has refused requests to meet with Huawei, saying it would be inappropriate.

“We have never, ever been asked to do anything by the Chinese Government, we’ve never been asked to spy, we’ve never been asked to do anything like that."

Trade Minister David Parker said the Government understood China’s dissatisfaction at the issue, but it was important to keep the issue at arm’s length, so as to stop it from becoming a political matter.

Bowater argued the lack of evidence of any security risks or espionage by China via Huawei equipment meant the decision was dependent on geopolitics.

Huawei was not surprised by decisions in Australia and the United States to ban a Chinese company, but did not expect New Zealand to take a similar stance, he said.

“We have never, ever been asked to do anything by the Chinese Government, we’ve never been asked to spy, we’ve never been asked to do anything like that...

“It’s important we don’t let politics trump commonsense."

GCSB outlines concerns

GCSB director general Andrew Hampton said he could not comment specifically on the Spark proposal but outlined general security concerns relating to 5G, and issues identified by the UK's cyber security evaluation centre.

He was clear the decision was based on national security concerns, not politics.

5G introduced significant changes to the traditional network model. In a 5G network, some of the sensitive functions were distributed out to the network “edge”. In the 5G context a reference to the “core” of a network might now include equipment at the edge of the network providing sensitive core functions, he said. 

Huawei was not providing Spark with the core, but Hampton said 5G made it much more difficult to isolate sensitive parts of the network.

"In the case of notifications that involve the use of Huawei equipment we have access to information from the United Kingdom’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre. However, New Zealand makes its own independent decisions on network security and is in no way bound by decisions made in the United Kingdom or elsewhere," he said.

GCSB director Andrew Hampton (right) has reaffirmed the Huawei decision so far has been based on intelligence and information that points to a security risk, rather than geopolitics. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In contrast to Bowater's assertions, Hampton said the UK Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board’s recent (2019) Annual Report indicated significant technical issues in Huawei’s engineering processes.

The report restated comments from earlier documents that the oversight board could provide only limited assurance that the long-term security risks could be managed in the Huawei equipment currently deployed in the UK.

The GCSB had access to information from Five Eyes partners and other sources, but the decisions the GCSB made in administering the Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security Act (TICSA) legislation was independent, in accordance with New Zealand law, and based on its own assessment.

Not over yet

In terms of testing, Huawei had gone above and beyond its competitors, including sharing its source-code with the UK, which New Zealand has access to through its Five Eyes arrangement, Bowater said.

“We’ve passed every test in front of us, and jumped every hurdle.”

He said the company was not giving up on its 5G plans just yet.

“We are up for doing whatever the Government would like. We’ve leaped over every hurdle so far, and we’re up for doing that in the future.”

After 14 years in the New Zealand market, Huawei deserved the right to a fair trial, he said.

The strong comments from Huawei were delivered at a conference focused on the China-New Zealand relationship, and the current business and political challenges.

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