That Global Ban on Huawei? Not So Much Anymore


For years the US government has warned the world that Chinese telecom giant Huawei is not to be trusted. Some governments agree: Australia and Japan have blocked Huawei gear from their next-generation 5G wireless networks.

But others, including US allies, disagree. A UK Parliament committee rejected a proposed ban on British telecom carriers using Huawei gear. "There are no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK's 5G or other telecommunications networks," UK Member of Parliament Norman Lamb, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, wrote in a letter explaining the committee's conclusions. The committee's decision follows the European Union's decision in March not to ban Huawei outright, but instead to ask member countries to assess the risks to their 5G networks.

Even the US appears to be easing up on Huawei. US government agencies are banned from doing business with carriers that use Huawei equipment. Last month, President Trump tweeted that he had agreed to allow US technology companies to sell products that don't threaten national security to Huawei, despite sanctions imposed against the company by the US Commerce Department in May. Last week Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross clarified that the government will grant licenses to US companies to sell products to Huawei on a case-by-case basis, but won't lift the restrictions on the company altogether.

That could be a major boon to both Huawei and US companies that sell to it, depending on how generous the department is in granting licenses. Both Huawei's telecommunication infrastructure equipment and its smartphones depend on US-made chips and software, such as the Google Play app store. Huawei bought $11 billion worth of products from the US last year, according to founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei. Ren said last month that US restrictions would cost the company $30 billion this year and next. He said the company is working to end its reliance on US companies by making its own chips and smartphone operating system, but that he also wants Huawei to buy from US suppliers if possible.

Still, Huawei reportedly is preparing to lay off hundreds of US employees of its subsidiary due to the US restrictions, according to The Wall Street Journal. Huawei did not respond to our request for comment.

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And though the UK committee rejected a ban on Huawei equipment, carriers already exclude the company's gear from "core" parts of wireless networks. The committee recommended making this exclusion mandatory. Lamb's letter did not explain the reasoning for excluding the company from the core parts of networks but not other parts. The committee also said that, though there's no technical reason to ban Huawei gear, there might be ethical reasons to do so. Specifically, Lamb’s letter cites an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report that Huawei supplied equipment to surveil Uyghur Muslims in western China.

Still, the committee's investigation could have been much worse for Huawei. In March, a UK government organization tasked with evaluating the security of Huawei's products released a scathing report warning of serious security risks in the company's software. The group's report didn't accuse Huawei of deliberately creating "backdoors," but blamed the problems on issues with the company's "basic engineering competence and cyber security hygiene."

Lamb's letter acknowledged the security issues highlighted in the previous reports. But it points out that the UK government discovered these issues because Huawei allows the government to audit its proprietary source code. The government doesn't have similar access to code from other vendors, such as Ericsson and Nokia, so it's unable to say whether Huawei's products pose a greater threat than those made by other companies. The letter suggests considering the merits of establishing similar auditing programs for equipment from other companies.

Opening its code to government inspections is part of Huawei's strategy to regain trust around the world. The company opened its Brussels Cyber Security Transparency Centre last March to help assure EU institutions that its products are safe to use.

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