5G technology and the Chinese company Huawei
5G is the fifth generation of mobile communications, following on from 4G. 5G will bring a new technological terrain that will allow interconnection between different domains, applications, and customers. This technology will be based on a predominantly virtual ecosystem, that is to say, that it will be made up more of software than of hardware infrastructure. This development will make it possible to connect a multitude of users on the same physical infrastructure, each with a virtual network. Among the areas where 5G technology is expected to be implemented in fields such as health (remote surgery), industry (remote control and diagnostics, connected objects, factory automation), energy (smart meters, consumption forecasts, renewable energies), municipalities (smart cities), automobiles (vehicle empowerment and automation), or virtual reality and augmented reality. However, it should be emphasized that 5G does not just come with new software advancements, but also with new hardware technologies, especially for data transmission methods that involve the installation of new hardware infrastructure.
However, this new technology comes with its share of concerns. First, according to Martijn Rasser 5G scrambles the distinction between the core and the peripheral of the network, making it more complex to isolate certain network elements, unlike the current 4G. Next, according to Melissa Hathaway, the software component of the network causes the multiplication of lines of code, which is likely to make network security more complex and exposed to many more vulnerabilities. By analyzing the 5G offerings of the Chinese company Huawei, the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Center (HCSEC) of the United Kingdom discovered several hundred vulnerabilities sufficiently important to create serious damage in the event of malicious exploitation. Finally, Huawei being the most advanced company in the field of 5G and its presumed proximity to the Chinese government leads several Western democracies to question the place of Huawei in their national infrastructures.
Indeed, in an era of competition between the great powers, the shadow of the Chinese state behind the Huawei company particularly worries Western democracies in which the company is already well established. The new Chinese Law on National Intelligence of 2017 is especially problematic. The law makes it clear that national security is everyone’s business in the country. Article 14 allows the state to request relevant bodies, organizations, and citizens to provide them with assistance, support, or any necessary cooperation. Article 16 allows intelligence officials to enter places and restricted areas of interest, interview relevant persons, organizations, or institutions, and read and collect relevant records, documents, or articles. In this context, the fear is that the Chinese government could ask the Huawei company to cooperate with the department’s intelligence and obtain access to networks or information about rival countries like Canada or the United States. This is why mobile networks must be considered activities of vital importance, as is the case in France, where they designated the sovereign action of the state as a source of protection.
Five Eyes partners dealing with Huawei 5G
The Five Eyes, the intelligence partnership between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, is one of Canada’s most important national security assets. The issue of Huawei 5G is of particular interest to the Five Eyes countries, insofar as the latter exchange a large volume of intelligence. So, what is the position of Canada’s allies on the 5G developed by the Chinese company?
The United States has already prohibited several departments from using Huawei technology. The United States is also warning the Five Eyes allies that if they accept Huawei 5G technology, intelligence exchanges would be compromised. The United Kingdom, first simply restricted Huawei’s access to its 5G infrastructure, but recently decided to completely ban 5G technology from the Chinese company and will require that all of Huawei’s installations are removed from networks by 2027. The British decision was taken so as not to harm its relations with the United States, especially in a period of Brexit.
Australia is even more hostile to Huawei 5G than the United States and decided to ban Huawei’s 5G network completely. This decision was taken based on extensive research by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). According to Patrick Walsh, Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at the University Charles Sturt, after simply looking to restrict and secure its network from Huawei technology, the intelligence service concluded that the scrambles t of boundaries between the core and the edge, and the virtualization of the network made this kind of security very difficult.
Finally, New Zealand, like Canada, has yet to make a final decision on Huawei’s 5G. The New Zealand government has claimed that this technology poses certain security concerns. However, New Zealand is in a special position, between the United States and China. The country is very dependent on the Chinese economy and therefore tries to manage its relations. On the other hand, New Zealand is afraid of abandonment by the United States if it does not follow Washington’s positions. However, according to Joe Burton of the University of Waikato, New Zealand also fears being trapped by the choice of the Five Eyes and having no choice but to follow its partners. It is likely then that New Zealand will wait for the Canadian decision to position itself, unless Canada’s strategy is to wait for New Zealand’s decision.
Beyond the Five Eyes, European countries are also looking at the thorny issue of 5G technology from Huawei. France, without completely banning Huawei equipment, has decided to provide limited permissions to operators using Huawei technology and encourages operators who have not already adopted Huawei to not do so in the future. The Netherlands has not taken a government decision on whether to ban the Chinese company, but its largest telephone operator has decided to ban Huawei equipment from its core network, while Denmark’s largest mobile firm reserves its 5G contracts to European suppliers. In any event, the European Union has decided to make securing its telephone and IT networks a priority and to tackle the problem together.
What choice for Canada?
Canada, one of the last Five Eyes members to make a decision, is under more pressure to finalize its stance since the UK decided to ban the Chinese company from its 5G network. This is in addition to the pressure the United States is exerting on Canada by threatening to reassess cooperation in exchange for intelligence if Canada allows Huawei in its 5G infrastructure. Justin Trudeau said he was watching carefully to what our allies decide to promote economic opportunities while securing networks and infrastructure. The Prime Minister is also paying attention to national security advisors. Richard Fadden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and former national security adviser to Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, believes that there is no real consensus within the Canadian intelligence community on banning Huawei 5G. Some would be in favor of such a ban while others believe it is possible to simply limit Huawei’s access by securing sensitive networks.
Either way, it seems difficult for Canada to make a decision that would go against the choices of its Five Eyes partners. Certainly, such a decision would be damaging to its relations with the Five Eyes, and especially with its American neighbor. In addition, given the very great integration of telecommunications and networks between the United States and Canada, an authorization of Huawei’s 5G on Canadian soil would directly threaten its American neighbor, which Canada does not want. It is, therefore, possible that these elements will weigh on the future Canadian decision, which seems to favor a common approach within the Five Eyes.
However, according to Melissa Hathaway, the race for 5G is already lost for Canada, and it should now invest in research and development in the technologies of to break out of the technological dependence on China. Beyond just 5G, the whole Canadian vision of its approach with China must be rethought. According to Fadden, Canada will have to acquire a comprehensive strategic vision on China as it is realizing that China may never be an important strategic partner because of its aggressiveness intelligence practices. Stéphanie Carvin, professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carlton University, believes that Canada must rethink its cybersecurity strategy and must adopt an effective doctrine in this area.
The 5G issue, therefore, goes well beyond the simple question of technological development. It is symptomatic of the geostrategic positioning that Canada intends to adopt in an era of uninhibited rivalry between China and the United States.