By Kelly MacGarrigle
Unless the UK halts the rollout of the 5G telecommunications network provided by the Chinese company Huawei, the US intelligence community cannot continue to share SIGINT within the UKUSA alliance safely. It is difficult to trust and share information in a network partially built by a company with compromising ties to the Chinese government, with a problematic history involving intellectual property theft and unauthorized network access.
Background – Origins and Evolution of UKUSA
In WW2, sharing intelligence between the Allied nations, especially the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK), was crucial to eventual victory and minimizing casualties. After the war, the UK and US wanted to continue their close intelligence-sharing relationship and developed the UKUSA agreement in 1946. While that agreement was solely between the US and UK, in 1955, the additional members who make up the alliance today were added: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, completing the group that is formally known as UKUSA, and colloquially known as “five-eyes,” or FVEY. (Farrell 2013) The alliance is a “cooperative, complex network of linked autonomous intelligence agencies” with a profoundly “unique” sense of trust that allows for increased efficiency in dealing with the tumultuous and fluid global landscape. (Cox 2012)
More specifically, the treaty agrees that the nations will have cooperation in the area of signals intelligence (SIGINT), or intelligence gathering through methods such as eavesdropping, radio intercepts, and phone tapping. While the details of what the members of UKUSA are currently working on are classified, each member is responsible for different regions, allowing the members to have an efficient division of labor. Moving into the latter part of the 20th century, FVEY expanded to include agreements with second and third parties, made up of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and other western allies. The below diagram depicts these relationships between the US and periphery FVEY members, with the sharing of SIGINT in exchange for financial and technological support.
The alliance has been generally beneficial to the US, as it allows for increased intelligence for organizations within the US intelligence community (IC) to analyze and funnel into policy. However, the US came under fire in 2011 with the massive intelligence leak by former contractor Edward Snowden, which revealed the contradictions over appropriate national security data collection, with some claiming that the general, indiscriminate data collection by the NSA violates the right to privacy. Of the files that were released by Snowden, the majority were marked “FVEY,” for five eyes, which meant that there was a network of allies complicit and aiding in massive data collection. This classification allowed the US to circumvent domestic prohibitions on collecting information on Americans, by having their partners make the connection, with the SIGINT coming from UKUSA. (Walsh and Miller 2016) While this alliance may have been helpful post WW2, today it is facing a potential breakdown of the intelligence-sharing network, due to the influence of the Chinese company Huawei in UK telecommunications.
Huawei, 5G, and Chinese Governmental Espionage
Before going into the potential implications of Huawei on the future of intelligence sharing networks, it is helpful to both understand what 5G is, and what role Huawei plays in its rollout worldwide. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile telecommunications networks, supporting cellular data networks at higher speeds, with increased capacity and speed at a lower cost. Huawei is a Chinese telecommunications company, central to the construction of fifth-generation 5G mobile networks worldwide. It is the largest seller of telecommunications equipment (including 5G) and the second-largest smartphone manufacturer. As seen in the below image, Huawei is the unambiguous leader in 5G coverage worldwide, with 42 commercial 5G contracts in over $100 billion in revenue, operating in 170 countries. (Maizland and Chatzky 2020)
Several members of FVEY have banned Huawei from providing 5G equipment to their nations, including Australia and the US. While this may seem at first like a somewhat trivial matter or anti-Chinese prejudice in these countries, the close ties between Chinese businesses and the government ensure that this is an issue of national security. According to the Chinese National Intelligence and Counter Espionage Laws, any Chinese organization must “support, assist, and cooperate in national intelligence work” regardless of their physical location, and must “truthfully provide” all information requested by the Chinese government. (Hoffman and Kania 2018) So, while Huawei has claimed that it is an independent organization, and operates outside of the purview of governmental direction, the clear rhetoric of Chinese law directly contradicts their claims.
Huawei, in the past, has been linked to legally questionable activity involving the security of their 5G networks. One such case regarded the theft of data from the African Union, where an unknown actor transferred data over five years to a server in Shanghai with Huawei responsible for the deployment of “all computing and storage resources in the AU’s central data center.” (Cave 2018) While it is unclear if Huawei was accountable for the data transfer, even if they were not, they allowed five years of Chinese access into the systems. They facilitated one of the “longest-running thefts of confidential government data” in the modern era. In response to these troubling incidents, Australia refused to allow Huawei to help with its 5G rollout, prioritizing the safety of its communications networks over technological potential. (Cave 2018)
There is also the consideration that with the murky relationship between the Chinese government and Huawei, the infrastructure could contain backdoor access, allowing Beijing into the mechanisms of telecommunication networks it aids in creating. This access would enable the Chinese to attack at any moment with this backdoor access, or as they potentially did with the AU, transmit classified and critical information. The US House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence argued that equipment from Huawei could undermine core US national security interests, both due to their questionable record and “credible evidence” that they refused to comply with US laws. The report also detailed the explicit connections between Huawei’s leadership and the government, with a “party committee” present in company leadership, remaining “dependent on the Chinese government for support.” (House Intelligence Committee 2012)
The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was most likely aware of the risks regarding Huawei and the safety of telecommunications networks, and the international community has responded to his decision with general disapproval. The UK plans to restrict access to only 35% of masts and antennae equipment. Still, it is unclear if this will pass given the divisions in the Tory party regarding Huawei’s rollout, which they feel could compromise British security. President Donald Trump has been heavily lobbying the UK to reject Huawei’s technology for years, fearing both the security risks to a critical ally with large amounts of sensitive information and the chance for Huawei to consolidate their market dominance across Europe. According to the written statement from the PM, Huawei would be excluded from “sensitive” parts of the communications network but did not go into further details about protections for general national security or British sovereignty. (Payne, Colson, and Bienkov 2020)
The US is strongly opposed to allowing Huawei into such a crucial ally, going so far as to introduce bills prohibiting sharing of intelligence with countries that would permit Huawei’s 5G technology access to their country. (House Intelligence Committee 2020) A cross-party group of US Senators (including the leaders of the committees on intelligence) has come together to protest their decision to allow Huawei into the nation, urging them to reverse course. (Warrell and Hughes 2020) While this a public relations move, the US also has considerable power in the upcoming trade negotiations with the UK. Since the UK has just left the European Union (EU) at the end of January, they now need to renegotiate their trade deals with critical allies, one of which is the US. While the US may have been willing to discuss a free trade agreement (FTA) with the UK pre-Huawei decision, the noticeably frostier negotiations could throw those chances to the wayside. If the UK decides to go through with this deal, it would be challenging to reach a mutually agreeable and beneficial FTA. The US prioritizes national security above all else and allowing free and open relations and exchanges (both goods and information) would be an anathema to decades of American foreign policy prescriptions. (Woodstock 2020)
At the end of January, Boris Johnson led the UK out of the EU. Unless he changes his decision regarding allowing Huawei into the country, he will also likely be leading them out of UKUSA. If the UK chooses to enter into business with Huawei, they are allowing a Chinese company with close ties and considerable funding from the government into their telecommunications network, potentially compromising the safety and security of the conversations and transmissions occurring. If this was to happen, the US could not continue to share information with the UK, as it could not trust the safety of the information transmitted. Within this data could be information about Chinese agents, who could be seriously hurt or killed if their identities were to become known to Chinese officials. Additionally, US intelligence officers would be compromising their security and safety while passing information, and an unknown number of operations worldwide could collapse with Chinese insider information. However, even if the worst-case scenario did not occur, the UK would be sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that they were supporting a country that silences all opposition and is headed by an authoritarian leader.
Unless the US wants to support such a decision, they need to separate themselves from the morally and strategically complicated mess that is a close business partnership with a Chinese company with uncomfortably close ties to the State. The UK’s decision to allow Huawei could inspire other countries, such as Canada and Germany, to follow, increasing the Chinese presence in typically strong Western allies. The UK must decide how much they value the “special relationship” that has developed through decades of cooperation. With upcoming trade negotiations, this decision could seriously harm the final shape of the Anglo-American relations, with the US less willing to grant preferential treatment to a country that refused to honor their wishes regarding informational security. Unless Johnson decides to ban Huawei, his decision could have lasting effects on the international and domestic stage, as well as for the long-lasting and (previously) strong alliance of five-eyes – which without the US, could fail to exist, leaving critical vulnerabilities in global defense.
Cave, Danielle. 2018. “The African Union Headquarters Hack and Australia’s 5G Network.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Cox, James. 2012.“Canada and the Five Eyes Intelligence Community.” Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Farrell, Paul. 2013.“History of Five-Eyes.” The Guardian.
Hoffman, Samantha, and Elsa Kania. 2018. “Huawei and the Ambiguity of China’s Intelligence and Counter-Espionage Laws.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“H.R.5661: To Prohibit the Sharing of United States Intelligence with Countries that Permit Operation of Huawei Fifth-Generation Telecommunications Technology Within Their Borders.” US House Committee on Intelligence. 2020.
“Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE.” US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 2012.
Maizland, Lindsay and Andrew Chatzky. 2020. “Huawei: China’s Controversial Tech Giant.” Council on Foreign Relations.
Payne, Adam, Thomas Colson, and Adam Bienkov. 2020. “Boris Johnson Defies Trump and Gives Huawei the Green Light to Develop Britain’s 5G Network.” Business Insider.
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Warrel, Helen, and Laura Hughes. 2020. “US Senators Urge UK to Scrap Role for Huawei in 5G Network.” Financial Times.
Woodstock, Andrew. 2020. “Trump Could Block Trade Deal With the UK in Row Over Boris Johnson’s Huawei Decision, Pence Says.” The Independent.