More thoughts on Huawei

“5G” is marketing speak for whatever is coming next in computer networks. It promises 100 times greater speed and the ability to connect many more devices in a small space. However, “5G” is unlikely to exist as a real thing until two serious problem are addressed. First, there is no killer app that demands this increase in performance. Examples mentioned breathlessly by the media include being able to download an entire movie in seconds (which doesn’t seem to motivate many people), the ability for vehicles to communicate with one another (still years away), and the ability for Internet of Things to communicate widely (the whole communicating lightbulbs phenomenon seems to have put consumers off rather than motivated them). Second, “5G” will require a much denser network of cell towers and it’s far from clear how they will be paid for and powered. The 5G networks touted in the media today require specialized handsets that are incompatible with existing networks and exist only in the downtown cores of a handful of cities. So “5G” per se is hardly a pressing issue.

Nevertheless, it does matter who provides the next generation of network infrastructure because networks have become indispensable to ordinary life – not just entertainment, but communication and business. And that’s why several countries have been so vocal against Huawei’s attempts to become a key player.

There are two significant issues. First, a network switch provider can see, block, or divert all the traffic passing through its switches. Even encrypting the traffic content doesn’t help much; it’s still possible to see who’s communicating with whom and how often. Huawei, however much it claims to the contrary, is subject to Chinese law that requires it to cooperate with the Chinese government and so can never provide neutral services. It doesn’t help to say, as Huawei does, that because it never has acted at the behest of the Chinese government, it never will in the future. Nor does it help to say that no backdoor has ever been found in its software. All network switches have the capability to be updated over the Internet, so the software it is running today need not be the software it is running tomorrow. It is not surprising that many governments, including the US and Australia, have reservations about allowing Huawei to provide network infrastructure.

Second, the next generation of network infrastructure will have to be more complex than what exists now. A long-standing collaboration between the UK and Huawei tried to improve confidence in Huawei products by disassembling and testing them. Their concern, for a number of years, was that supposedly identical software built in China and built in the UK turned out to be of different sizes. This is a bad sign, because it suggests that the software pays attention to where it is being built and modifies itself accordingly (much as VW emissions testing software checked whether the vehicle was undergoing an emissions test and modified its behaviour ). However, their 2019 report concluded that the issue stemmed from Huawei’s software construction processes, which were so flawed that they were unable to build software consistently anywhere. The software being studied is for today’s 4G network infrastructure, and the joint GCHQ-Huawei Centre concluded that it would take them several years even to reach today’s software engineering state-of-the-art. It seems inconceivable that Huawei will be able to produce usable network infrastructure for an environment that will be many times more complex.

These two problems, in a way, cancel each other out – if the network infrastructure is of poor quality it probably can’t be manipulated explicitly by Huawei. But its poor quality increases the opportunity for attacks on networks by China (without involving Huawei), Russia, Iran, or even terrorist groups.

Huawei systems are cheaper than their competitors, and it’s a truism that convenience trumps security. But the long-term costs of a Huawei connected world may be more than we want to pay.

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