Business Technology

Sunday 21 July 2019

US Homeland chief warns our 5G security at risk from Huawei

One of America's highest-ranking security officers says the Chinese telecoms giant is a threat to Ireland and the western world. Jeanette Manfra spoke to Adrian Weckler about why we must be on guard

Collaboration: US Homeland Security assistant director for cybersecurity Jeanette Manfra says her office’s engagement with the Irish Defence Forces and the National Cyber Security Centre has expanded. Photo: Tony Gavin
Collaboration: US Homeland Security assistant director for cybersecurity Jeanette Manfra says her office’s engagement with the Irish Defence Forces and the National Cyber Security Centre has expanded. Photo: Tony Gavin
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Ireland faces future risks from the rollout of Huawei 5G telecoms networks, according to the assistant director for cybersecurity in the US Department of Homeland Security.

Speaking to the Irish Independent on a visit to Dublin, Jeanette Manfra said that she had spoken formally to the Minister for Communications on the issue.

The main risk, she said, was that Huawei and other Chinese companies are subject to laws in their home countries that cannot be trusted from a security standpoint.

However, she said that she has not specifically advised the Irish Government to take action against Huawei as it is not for the US to tell Ireland "who to choose or not to choose" in planning its network rollout.

"I wouldn't presume to tell another government how to do their business," said Ms Manfra. "But it's no secret that we have problems with Huawei."

Huawei has repeatedly insisted that it poses no security risk to Irish or European network integrity and that it would decline to co-operate with any future order from the Chinese government to compromise security.

Asked about what she told Communications Minister Richard Bruton about the security risks associated with rolling out 5G, Ms Manfra said that it was "background material that we've developed internally".

"It's to make sure that they [the Irish Government] have the benefit of our experience and our perspective on the risks associated with that. And it was also to tell them that we're there for their support, if they choose."

US security agencies have warned that some Chinese and Russian technology and telecoms firms represent a long-term security risk to western countries because of interference laws they are subject to in their home countries.

They have suggested that in any future conflict, a 5G mobile network could be infiltrated by an enemy power to inflict damage by disrupting utilities that depend on 5G networks.

Automated vehicle networks and communications are some of the worst-case scenarios painted by American authorities.

In recent months, this has crystallised into a US executive order against Huawei. The move, sanctioned by President Donald Trump, has caused significant damage to the giant Chinese telecoms and technology company outside China, through companies like Google and Qualcomm withdrawing commercial co-operation with the firm.

A small number of countries, including Australia, have also ruled that Huawei cannot form part of 'core' 5G networks in response to US lobbying on the issue.

Some analysts say that the US initiative threatens to kick off a new global technology rift between east and west.

However, Ms Manfra said that her office has stopped short of advising the Irish Government to take similar action against Huawei as US authorities have done.

"I would not go so far as to tell people who to choose or not to choose," Ms Manfra said.

"Instead, I'm trying to offer a risk framework against which others can make those decisions."

Ms Manfra said that the substantial presence in Ireland of tech giants such as Google and Facebook, as well as dozens of major data centres, could make Ireland a target in any future conflict.

"I don't have specific information about that, but Ireland does open itself up to becoming a target because of the data that's held here.

"But I'd also say that those companies are also some of the best in the world at securing this. And we have great relationships with those companies, increasingly so in fact. So you have a tremendous advantage by having a lot of these big companies here.

"It allows Ireland to draw on that expertise and to build your own national expertise in that area."

In Ireland, Huawei is one of the main equipment vendors in the fibre broadband network being rolled out by Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB. That network has now passed over 300,000 homes.

It's a similar story for Ireland's biggest operator, Eir. That company uses a combination of Ericsson and Huawei to support its telecoms networks here.

Imagine Communications, which is rolling out fixed wireless broadband to rural areas, is also basing much of its infrastructure on Huawei kit.

Three has not yet decided which company it will use to build out its upcoming 5G network.

But Ms Manfra said that the problem is a broad one that predates the issue of 5G.

"The way we think about this is in terms of broader supply chain issues," she said. "And this is the concern that we have with Huawei. For 5G, we want to be having that conversation before the deployments are fully out there."

"Cybersecurity is something we've dealt with for a really long time. We try to take a risk-based approach and not just a threat-based approach.

"So there are a fair amount of products and services that are out there that maybe aren't particularly trustworthy, but they don't have a tremendous amount of access to your system data.

"But then you look at the penetration in the market. So you might have a product or service that has tremendous access, like in the case of Kaspersky, an anti-virus system. It's got market penetration that's significant.

"And then the last part, which is very important, is the laws that that company is subject to.

"In the case of Russia and China, there are laws which, regardless of how a company might envision itself, or how they might want to draw certain lines, they're compelled to follow the laws of that country.

"The laws of Russia and China can have more access to data that we're just not comfortable with.

"And so we issued a directive banning Kaspersky from government networks. And we provided a huge set of unclassified evidence that stood up in two court cases.

"And so that framework really informs everything of how we think about supply chain challenges, including with 5G."

Ms Manfra says that while Ireland has a "good opportunity" to control its own future, a security Rubicon has now been crossed in the telecoms world.

"Some have already crossed the Rubicon a bit," she said. "Because as I understand it, Huawei uses proprietary standards and you can get a bit blocked in and it can be a bit expensive to replace it. I get the economic realities with that. That is something we're dealing with in the rural United States, for example.

"But as long as you understand the risk that you're accepting, there are things that you can do in terms of monitoring and oversight.

"But it still comes back to the laws of the country that these companies are compelled to follow. And that's my concern."

One of the challenges that the US has had is in convincing European countries to follow its tactics in prohibiting Huawei and other Chinese companies from bidding for contracts in telecoms networks and other significant utilities.

How does the Department Of Homeland Security view this difference in risk assessment? Are we being lax or is it possible the US is being over-cautious?

"I don't know that we characterise the risk very differently," said Ms Manfra. "I think we come down differently on how well you can manage the risk and the steps to take to manage the risk.

"Also, we've been concerned about Huawei well before the present 5G conversation. So that's probably a difference of opinion. I don't know that there's any disagreement about the characterisation of the risk. I recognise that people have to make trade-offs. I get that. We would just encourage people to understand the full scope of what's at stake if you are thinking about making some of those trade-offs."

Ms Manfra said that her office's engagement with the Irish Defence Forces and the National Cyber Security Centre has expanded sharply in the last year and a half. "They're doing some really good things," she said. "Since the last time I was here, we've expanded our collaboration from standard information to learning from each other and being a resource for each other."

For its part, Huawei recently told this newspaper that the international market would leave it "dead" if it there was a perceived security risk along the lines of current US claims.

However, the issue looks set to drag on. Reports this week claim that the US administration may start requiring telecom equipment makers to move their manufacturing and assembly operation out of China, a further direct strike against the strength of China's dominant supply chain industry.

And the entire controversy is occurring against the backdrop of a worsening trade war between America and China.

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