The war between the U.S. government and the tech giant, Huawei, has been raging since 2012, when the company was first accused of having links to the Chinese government. But the year 2020 seems to bring the battle to somewhat of a boiling point:
Demands for the most cutting-edge 5G technology is mounting, allies of the U.S. have begun to take controversial stands, and Trump’s government is making new moves that aim to cripple the tech company for good.
It is easy to get caught up in “who had the last laugh” in this week’s chapter of international security and technological warfare. But alas, this is more than entertainment from a distant battlefield.
These decisions are beginning to affect us, and our exposure to cutting-edge technology.
We should be consistently asking ourselves- is the fiercely negative attitude that the U.S. maintains towards Huawei legitimate? Or is it more of a political move with the aim of one-upping their Chinese competitors rather than a genuine security concern?
In January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a surprising stand indicating that he believes the latter. He made it clear that he would not give into the U.S. pressure regarding their ties to Huawei claiming “the British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology—now if people oppose one brand or another then they have to tell us what’s the alternative.”
While no clear decision has been made, the softening of the U.K.’s political resistance to Huawei could have major consequences. Not only is the UK a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, but they are also known for their security expertise. Any decision made by the UK regarding Huawei would greatly affect how other countries respond to the tech company.
This has sparked elation for Huawei, but it may be short-lived, as a greater threat looms in the not-so-far distance. A report from Reuters confirms that the threat by the U.S. to tighten the supply chain restriction is about to come into fruition. Until now, the U.S. has been able to cut off international Huawei suppliers only when a minimum of 25% of the product was U.S. made. But the Commerce Department is about to reduce this to 10%, meaning a bout of sanctions could hit Huawei any day.
This is incredibly bad news for a company that is already on its knees due to existing sanctions.
Huawei took another symbolic hit when the US announced plans to make its own 5G technology with American and European companies. Though this plan seems like a far-off concept, if it were to be successful, it could reduce the importance of Huawei equipment internationally.
Why is the US so vehemently against Huawei? The core fear is that Huawei, through their cell tower and networking equipment, could spy for the Chinese government, presenting a national security risk. Despite the complete lack of hard evidence after more than seven years of searching, the U.S. believes that the even a future threat is enough to cancel Huawei contracts.
The Trump administration has been pushing a hard line against the fact that Huawei founder Mr. Ren Zhengfei once served in the People’s Liberation Army (which is a known escape route for those stuck in countryside poverty, as was Mr. Ren) is reason enough to assume Huawei’s ultimate mission is to bring down the U.S.
It is illogical because the supposed danger Huawei could introduce - gaining access to huge amounts of personal data and using this info detrimentally - is already here in home-grown U.S. with companies like Google and Facebook.
These U.S. digital whales, which also own Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube respectively, have an astoundingly comprehensive collection of data about their users including location, messages, photos, contacts, downloads, preferences, purchases, and more. And let’s not forget- both Google and Facebook have already misused the data to which they are privy.
You may claim that it is not the same since Huawei is a Chinese company, rivals of the U.S., and therefore more of a danger to democracies and international politics. Yet this too is an invalid argument since Facebook has already undermined the democratic process even in the U.S. where it was used to enable foreign interference in elections.
You may also claim that unlike Huawei, which is bound to the Chinese government, Facebook and Google are totally private, but you would be wrong again. Google does plenty work for the U.S. government including, but not limited to aiding the U.S. military and intelligence services.
Despite all this, the U.S. government have barely lifted a finger to secure the public from these existing threats, while acting preemptively and harshly to the future threat of Huawei.
There is also the security risk of the harsh U.S. bans- by outlawing Huawei, they are cutting off their best competitor. Huawei is not only the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications equipment, but it is the global leader in constructing ultra-high-speed 5G networks, way ahead of any U.S. contender.
Politicizing 5G will be detrimental to technological development.
The U.S. obsession with banning Huawei violates the principle of fair competition that allows technology to grow at its current pace, ultimately going against the interests of the international community. Knocking out competition leads other companies into complacency, meaning U.S. development will be slowed. This presents an even greater security risk long-term.
So, what is the solution? Huawei is a risk (much like Facebook and Google), but there are other ways to mitigate the risk besides enacting full-on bans.
The U.S. should be looking for alternative solutions, perhaps like Francis Dinah of OpenVPN suggests,
‘building an overlay secure virtual network across the 5G infrastructure that could provide end-to-end security, controlled and managed by the 5G network operators’.
Rather than being on the constant and dramatized defensive, a move that threatens to stagnate international tech growth, the U.S. ought to be proactively looking for alternative methods to improve our cybersecurity.
This Huawei crusade may make us feel safe short-term, but the long—term consequences could be disastrous for all sides.