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Why the U.S. objects to Huawei’s involvement in building 5G networks

The United Kingdom says it will allow Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to build part of its new 5G cellular network. The U.S. government had warned against the move, arguing Huawei poses a national security threat, but British officials said the company’s role will be limited to lower-risk parts of the process. William Brangham talks to Wired Magazine’s Garrett Graff about the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the United Kingdom will allow the Chinese technology firm Huawei to build part of its new 5G cellular network.

    William Brangham reports that the U.S. government argues Huawei poses a national security risk and should have no role building networks for American allies.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    Huawei is the largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in the world. It is also the second biggest cell phone manufacturer.

    The U.S. government argues Huawei is too close to the Chinese government, and letting the company build telecom networks leaves those networks vulnerable to Chinese espionage.

    Last year, in his series on China, my colleague Nick Schifrin reported on Huawei's effort to build a suite of products called safe cities, and how that technology might be used.

    Here's a short excerpt from that report.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It may look like an Apple event in California, but this is Germany, and the presentation is for the Chinese company Huawei.

  • Man:

    We're the first one, 5G.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last month, Huawei launched the world's first chip with integrated 5G, or fifth-generation, technology. It will dramatically speed up phones and is designed to connect everything around us, transmit huge amounts of data instantly, and transform entire cities.

  • Edwin Diender:

    We're now walking on the floor that touches everything in your city.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Huawei chief digital information officer Edwin Diender shows off what Huawei calls a smart city. Closed-circuit cameras feed into a database with advanced artificial intelligence, and facial recognition can identify everyone, cross-reference license plates, and analyze unlimited information.

    Huawei promotional videos compare the combination of A.I., 5G, and surveillance to how a brain processes information to control the body.

    The U.S. fears that Huawei's information isn't secure, because the control is actually the Chinese government's.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    To have Huawei operating as a 5G network in our country or in our allies' countries, we believe, represents a fundamental compromise of our national security and the privacy of millions of citizens.

  • William Brangham:

    The U.K.'s decision to allow Huawei in came despite months of intense lobbying by the Trump administration.

    In response, the U.S. says it now might limit intelligence-sharing between Western allies.

    Historian and journalist Garrett Graff has been covering Huawei for "Wired" magazine.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Garrett Graff:

    Thank you for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you talk a little bit more about this concern that we heard a little about from Vice President Mike Pence there, the concern the government has about Huawei and this national security concern?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes.

    So, 5G, the technology that Nick was just talking about, is going to be sort of the foundational underpinning of the next generation of your cell phone, your connected car, your connected refrigerator. This is going to be what powers American life and Western life and human life over the next decade.

    And the U.S. government and the Trump administration have spent the last two years arguing that allowing Huawei to build that network, to be sort of the people at the center of all of that information and data, is just too much of a risk, that that is handing over too many sinister possibilities to the government of China, from sort of stealing and reading that data, to the possibility of, you know, turning the networks on and off in a time of great tension with China.

  • William Brangham:

    So how real is that risk? I mean, what is the evidence for this?

    We saw Senator Tom Cotton recently equated allowing Huawei to build modern-day data networks as the equivalent of letting the KGB build phone systems back during the Cold War.

    Is it really a Trojan horse?

  • Garrett Graff:

    We don't know.

    And that's part of what makes this — this moment sort of so fraught for both Huawei and the U.S. government. I mean, the U.S. government says, look, the risk is just too big. It may be a Trojan horse. It may be not a Trojan horse.

    This is a company that, according to the U.S. government, has a pattern of intellectual property threat and economic espionage. It has a pattern, according to the U.S. government, of evading sanctions, U.S. sanctions, and doing business with countries like Iran and North Korea and authoritarian regimes in Africa to help — it helps enable the surveillance and the oppression of the Uyghur minority in Northwest China.

    This is just a company we don't want to be doing business with. We don't want to take this risk.

    Huawei says, look, we're a plumbing company. It's not up to us to figure out what goes through the pipes. We just build the pipes. And they say that they are an employee-owned company, a private company in China.

    And Mr. Ren, the founder and sort of visionary behind Huawei, has said that he would rather shut the company down than ever compromise its customers' private or data.

    The U.S. government counters by saying, you may not have a choice. Under what is known as the 2017 Chinese national intelligence law, it appears Huawei could actually be coerced and required to cooperate with Chinese intelligence, if asked.

  • William Brangham:

    The U.K., in its decision-making, said, we're only going to allow what they admit is a high-risk vendor to have access to one part of their network. And they say this will be secure, that they can basically quarantine Huawei or other manufacturers from one part of it, and everything will be secure.

    Is that true?

  • Garrett Graff:

    So, the U.K. has a much — a very long history with Huawei as a key vendor of British Telecom, B.T.

    And so they just approach this issue differently from the U.S. They think that there's sort of these two sides of the coin, data access and network availability. And they're sort of making the choice that we can limit Huawei's data access to the network, while just — and risking this open question about the network availability, whether Huawei could still turn the network on or off.

  • William Brangham:

    So they might have the ability to shut the system down, but they wouldn't be able to look at what was passing over the system?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Effectively, that's the gamble that the U.K. is making.

  • William Brangham:

    Last question. What does this do? I mean, the U.S. has said, if you're building Huawei equipments into your networks, that threatens our — makes us very concerned about sharing intelligence secrets, if it's on a potentially vulnerable network.

    Does this represent a long-term threat to U.S. intelligence relationships, or not?

  • Garrett Graff:

    So it's probably pretty doubtful that much would change in the U.S. relationship with the U.K.

    This is the closest…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    The special relationship.

  • Garrett Graff:

    The special relationship.

    The intelligence partnership, national security partnership that we have with the U.K. is the closest, tightest relationship that we have with any country in the world.

    The bigger challenge and sort of the long-term door that the U.K. move opens is, if you are any other country facing the high-pressure campaign from the U.S. to block Huawei from your systems, if you're Germany, if you are Poland, if you are Italy, and you were sort of already on the fence, you're probably going to look at this decision and say, well, if the U.K. can get away with that, so can we.

  • William Brangham:

    Garrett Graff, thank you very much.

  • Garrett Graff:

    My pleasure.

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