The telecom giant Huawei’s relations with the West have long been dogged by concerns that its remarkable economic success selling affordable consumer gadgetry has hidden a secret and darker mission as a hi-tech spying tool of Beijing.
Its frequent denials of close links to the ruling Communist Party have failed to convince to western intelligence officials, private companies and government officials amid continuing unease that its technology could allow unauthorised access to national networks by the Chinese government.
The UK telecoms firm BT on Wednesday was revealed to be the latest firm prepared to act on those concerns with a plan, first reported in the Financial Times, to bar Huawei 5G equipment from its core network.
“In 2016, following the acquisition of EE, we began a process to remove Huawei equipment from the core of our 3G and 4G mobile networks, as part of network architecture principles in place since 2006,” a BT statement said. Peripheral parts of Huawei technology will, however, remain.
Australia and New Zealand also announced this year that they would not allow Huawei to be involved in building next generation 5G systems in their countries.
New Zealand's intelligence minister Andrew Little said: “It's not about the country, it's not even particularly about the company, it's about the technology that is proposed.”
US media reports have suggested Washington is urging its allies to avoid Chinese technology networks amid fears they could be used for espionage.
In a rare public speech on Sunday, the chief of the UK’s foreign intelligence service MI6 also expressed his concerns over companies such as Huawei too.
Quoting a November report to the US Senate, Alex Younger said Beijing could "force Chinese suppliers or manufacturers to modify products to perform below expectations or fail, facilitate state or corporate espionage, or otherwise compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability.
"We need to decide the extent to which we are going to be comfortable with Chinese ownership of these technologies and these platforms in an environment where some of our allies have taken a quite definite position.”
The Senate report by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission found “significant departures” between US and Chinese privacy policies and the rules on user data.
For instance, Huawei’s user agreement says: “The data may be transferred to or accessed from other jurisdictions which are outside of the country where you use Huawei’s products or services. These jurisdictions may have different data protection laws, or such laws may not even exist.”
Apple makes no such disclosure, the report said.
In February, the heads of the US’s major intelligence agencies warned a senate committee of the dangers of using Huawei products, as well as Chinese company ZTE. In 2017 the latter was fined for exporting technology to Iran and North Korea, in violation of sanctions.
FBI Director Chris Wray said their deep concerns about the risks of firms “beholden to foreign governments” to obtain “positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.”
It could give such entities the ability to “maliciously modify or steal information… conduct undetected espionage,” he added.
Despite this, Huawei’s often reclusive chairman Ren Zhengfei, who joined the Communist party in the late 1970s and formerly was a member of the People’s Liberation Army, has always said none of his team had or would spy for China. Executives for the firm have always insisted they are not a threat to the UK or its western allies.