By Mark Richards.

Should the Chinese telecoms company Huawei be allowed to supply equipment for the UK’s 5G network? There are mixed messages coming from the UK Government – while other countries around the world decide that the answer is an emphatic ‘no.’

Whoop! Whoop! From February 25th to the 28th it is the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona where – according to the conference tagline – business gets done, connections are made, products get launched, insights are gained, partnerships are forged, policy is defined and innovations are celebrated.

But should we also add, ‘everyone gets spied on?’ Because, according to the BBC’s technology correspondent, “Security concerns about Huawei’s 5G kit are a shadow hanging over the whole of this year’s Congress.”

So have Huawei been quietly hiding in a corner hoping for the fuss to die down? Far from it.

MWC saw Huawei reveal its first smartphone to feature a foldable screen, less than a week after rival Samsung did the same. Unlike Samsung, Huawei’s phone folds the screen outwards: it features a larger display than the Samsung phone and is flatter and thinner when folded. The Samsung phone, however, scores by being able to show two displays – so you can look at your e-mails and the football scores simultaneously – and critics have pointed out that a crease in the screen is also visible on the Huawei phone.

But it is spying – and the refusal of governments around the world to use Huawei’s 5G equipment – not a crease in a phone, that is hanging over MWC.

Huawei – the background

We have written about Huawei previously, but it is perhaps useful to recap the basic details of the company.

The company (it is pronounced Wah-way) was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer in the People’s Liberation Army, in Shenzhen, a major city in the Chinese province of Guangdong.

The company has grown exponentially and now employs 170,000 people (around 40,000 more than work for Apple) with 76,000 of those staff engaged in research and development around the world, including in the UK.

Significantly, the company now manufactures 5G telecoms equipment (5G, as you know, will change all out lives and lead to smart cities managing their own traffic flows of driverless cars. And so on, and so on…) But many countries are uneasy about using Huawei equipment, worrying about the company’s close ties to the Chinese government.

Increasing security concerns

Last year Spark NZ – New Zealand’s equivalent of BT – wanted to use Huawei equipment in its 5G mobile network. ‘Absolutely not,’ said NZ’s government security agency, fearing that the deal would bring significant risks and banning the move on national security worries.

This followed hot on the heels of similar action in Australia, where the government blocked the involvement of both Huawei and fellow Chinese firm ZTE on the same national security grounds.

And in the US, President Trump signed a defence funding bill in August 2018 that blocked US federal agencies from purchasing any Huawei or ZTE equipment. Interestingly, the President now appears set to take a softer line on Huawei, presumably as he looks to settle the long-running US/China trade dispute.

So what’s happening in the UK?Huawei: helping the UK or Spying on the UK?

O2 announced last year that it was going to use Huawei equipment in its 5G testing. This prompted Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to become the latest high profile person to voice “very deep concerns” about Huawei.

What has happened since then? This will astonish you from a Government which awarded a ferry contract to a company without any ships and which had Brexit sorted out months ago, but the situation is confused.

At the beginning of February, it was reported that Huawei was due to ‘come under fresh scrutiny’ with a forthcoming report from the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) due to criticising the company for its failure to address security concerns. ‘The report will slam the company for failing to fix issues raised in last year’s report’ sources apparently told the Telegraph.

That is alright then and we can all sleep soundly in our beds. Sadly not, because by the middle of the month the NCSC had apparently changed its mind and decided that it could cope with the risks posed by Huawei.

What is more, reported the Financial Times, the report would ‘carry great weight’ with other countries in Europe, who would be likely to follow the UK’s lead. And this morning there is a story that GCHQ wants to understand the ‘threats and opportunities’ that will come from using Chinese technology. There appears to be a clear division in the intelligence community, with the Royal United Services Institute having said that it would be ‘naïve’ and ‘irresponsible’ to allow Huawei access to the UK’s 5G network – a view that I suspected most laymen applying a degree of common sense would share.

Huawei and UK education

Meanwhile, Huawei continues to pour money into research facilities in UK universities. Oxford famously ‘turned off the Huawei money tap’ over security concerns, but plenty of other UK universities continue to accept money from the company and we are not talking about small amounts.

The University of Surrey has accepted a $7.5m (£5.75m) donation to its 5G innovation centre and describes Huawei as a key partner, saying it would continue working with the company ‘unless there were clear and compelling reasons not to do so.’

In Scotland, Edinburgh University says it has “an ongoing partnership with Huawei” and has accepted £5.1m to fund research into data management and information technology.

Before Christmas MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee urged UK universities to use extreme caution – but whether this will carry any weight in the face of million pounds ‘research grants’ is open to doubt.

What is not in doubt is that a company founded just over 30 years ago by a former officer in the Chinese army is now in a position to threaten the security of the UK. Is working with Huawei a risk worth taking? The question of the company’s links to the Chinese government and its links to spying will be a story that runs through the year. Personally, I would feel a lot happier if the UK government simply said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’