Huawei’s new problem

The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) is a joint effort, between GCHQ and Huawei, to increase confidence in Huawei products for use in the UK. It’s been up and running since 2013.

In its 2018 report, the focus was on issues of replicable builds. Binaries compiled in China were not the same size as binaries built in the UK. To a computer scientist, this is a bad sign since it suggests that the code contains conditional compilation statements such as:

If country_code == UK

insert backdoor

In the intervening year, they have dug into this issue, and the answer they come up with is unexpected. It turns out that the problem is not a symptom of malice, but a symptom of incompetence. The code is simply not well enough engineered to produce consistent results.

Others have discussed the technical issues in detail:

https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/03/28/hcsec_huawei_oversight_board_savaging_annual_report/

but here are some quotes from the 2019 report:

“there remains no end-to-end integrity of the products as delivered by Huawei and limited confidence on Huawei’s ability to understand the content of any given build and its ability to perform true root cause analysis of identified issues. This raises significant concerns about vulnerability management in the long-term”

“Huawei’s software component management is defective, leading to higher vulnerability rates and significant risk of unsupportable software”

“No material progress has been made on the issues raised in the
previous 2018 report”

“The Oversight Board continues to be able to provide only limited
assurance that the long-term security risks can be managed in the
Huawei equipment currently deployed in the UK”

Not only is the code quality poor, but they see signs of attempts to cover up the shortcuts and practices that led to the issue in the first place.

The report is also scathing about Huawei’s efforts/promises to clean up its act; and they estimate a best case timeline of 5 years to get to well-implemented code.

5G (whatever you take that to mean) will be at least ten times more complex than current networking systems. I think any reasonable computer scientist would conclude that Huawei will simply be unable to build such systems.

Canada, and some other countries, are still debating whether or not to ban Huawei equipment. This report suggests that such decisions can be depoliticised, and made based purely on economic grounds.

But, from a security point of view, there’s still an issue — the apparently poor quality of Huawei software creates a huge threat surface that can be exploited by the governments of China (with or without Huawei involvement), Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as non-state actors and cyber criminals.

(Several people have pointed out that other network multinationals have not been scrutinised at the same depth and, for all we know, they may be just as bad. This seems to me implausible. One of the unsung advantages that Western businesses have is the existence of NASA, which has been pioneering reliable software for 50 years. If you’re sending a computer on a one-way trip to a place where no maintenance is possible, you pay a LOT of attention to getting the software right. The ideas and technology developed by NASA have had an influence in software engineering programs in the West that has tended to raise the quality of all of the software developed there. There have been unfortunate lapses, whenever the idea that software engineering is JUST coding becomes popular (Windows 95, Android apps) but overall the record is reasonably good. Lots better than the glimpse we get of Huawei, anyway.)

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