The UK government has approved the inclusion of Huawei technology in the UK’s 5G network, with a host of caveats.
It is a decision that could make a substantial – if initially subtle – difference to the millions of people who use mobile networks across the country.
In the short term, most phone users will probably not see a significant difference in the way they use their phone: 5G is still a long way from being universally available, and almost every phone does not support it. Even when it arrives, normal users are unlikely to see any indication that their connection is being powered by Huawei technology.
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But some privacy activists are concerned that it could make a difference in more hidden, but important ways. Critics argue that Huawei’s involvement could allow for snooping on communications and cyber attacks – both of which would clearly be significant events for the way people use their phone, but which the UK government says should be stopped from happening.
The US and critics within the UK parliament argued that Huawei should be kept out of building the UK’s 5G infrastructure, citing fears about the Chinese company’s alleged links to its government among other concerns.
But the UK government was apparently satisfied that the limits it will impose on Huawei’s involvement with 5G will be enough to keep citizens safe as they use their phone.
The decision has a significant impact on the future of phone networks and the infrastructure companies that run them in the UK. It could also have consequences for the relationship between the UK and US.
But away from those large-scale concerns, it will make a small change to the way that everyone across the country uses their phone.
The first major difference is that the UK will press ahead with the introduction of 5G as planned. The UK government argued that banning Huawei from the network would lead to a delay and more costs in rolling out the faster internet and more reliable connections that are promised with the technology – and so among the consequences of today’s decision is the fact that 5G is still to happen.
But far more important to the conversation about Huawei is the fact that consumers could be under threat of surveillance. That is the suggestion that has been made by the US and critics in the UK, who say that the company could intercept communications on behalf of China.
Huawei has always denied that this is the case, promising that there would be no backdoor in the UK’s 5G network that would enable it to see messages.
While there is no way of knowing for sure whether that will definitively not happened, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre noted that using “backdoors” would not be the “lowest risk, easiest to perform or most effective means for the Chinese state to perform a major cyber attack on UK telecoms networks”, in an assessment of the safety of the deal.
Another concern is that the UK’s use of a Chinese company could allow the country to become “nationally dependant” on the firm. The NCSC said that could happen in three years and would pose a “significant national security risk”.
The UK government has argued that the restrictions placed on Huawei will limit those dangers.
“Ministers today determined that UK operators should put in place additional safeguards and exclude high-risk vendors from parts of the telecoms network that are critical to security,” the government said when it announced its decision. “High-risk vendors are those who pose greater security and resilience risks to UK telecoms networks.”
There are four main restrictions on the role of companies such as Huawei in the 5G network. They will not be allowed to be involved in “safety related and safety critical networks”; they will not be allowed to be involved in the “core”, or most sensitive, part of the network; they will be banned from sensitive places such as “nuclear sites and military bases”; and their involvement will be limited to less than 35 per cent of the network, ensuring they keep a minority presence.
Huawei said it was pleased by the decision, noting that it has supplied equipment to UK telecoms firms for more than 15 years.
“Huawei is reassured by the UK government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track,” the company said.
“This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market.”