The future of technology looks big, bright and beyond imagination – highlighted through the transition from existing telecommunication systems to a high-speed “fifth-generation” (5G) network. This transition will deliver faster data on our smart devices, altering the speed and progress of our daily lives. Yet despite the quickening pace of high-tech developments, the question arises – in what ways does all this new technology come at the risk of our national security?
The Chinese technology conglomerate Huawei makes everything from set-top boxes and routers to smartphones. However, this seemingly innocent tech company has repeatedly been singled out as a potential threat, and enabler to national security breaches. Though Huawei has repeatedly denied accusations that there exist “back doors” or deliberate security flaws in its products, inserted to allow Beijing to conduct espionage using these phone networks, no one can be sure as to the veracity of this claim.
So what exactly are the risks involved, and should the West continue to rely on Huawei to deliver our technological needs to come?
Cybersecurity - Who’s who in the zoo?
The 5-Eyes exists as the world’s most comprehensive intelligence alliance, that you probably have not heard of. Established as an Allied intelligence-sharing pact during World War II, the anglophone partnership links together in cooperation with the signals-intelligence agencies of America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Traditionally, trust amongst spies is a rare commodity. Yet, in many ways forged under the pressure of the Second World War, the 1946 UKUSA Agreement (also known as the 5-Eyes) has stood the test of time. The pact remains one of the most complex and far-reaching intelligence and espionage alliances in recent history.
The 5-Eyes exists between like-minded Western countries due to their close strategic, material, and cultural bonds, and has been increasingly directed against Chinese influence, operations and investments. For many years, America’s allies have long enjoyed their place in the elite club - deriving a considerable advantage from their membership. Other states, even within NATO, are considered as more distant from the USA as per the so-called “hub and spokes” arrangement. Therefore, member nations are conscious of being regarded as part of this inner circle.
How the West Collects Intelligence
Intelligence-gathering is a painstaking and potentially treacherous exercise. It is generally comprised of information collected by spies (human intelligence), and by interception of communications (signals intelligence). Human intelligence has its pitfalls, particularly as the use of human agents is predominately life-threatening. An indispensable component to spying is the importance of taking calculated risks.
By contrast, signals intelligence scales much more readily, especially for intelligence agencies with less human resources. Furthermore, a technology-centered intelligence strategy requires the collection of information, decryption and intelligence-sharing between allies. In a post-9/11 environment, it has become increasingly critical to identify weak signals in an ever-noisier world. The online space is regarded as asymmetric in nature, as it provides an empowering opportunity for weaker actors with a variety of malware tools to be on an equal footing. Nevertheless, the West has increased its reliance on technology to counter a growing array of cybersecurity threats from state actors, such as China and Russia, as well as non-state actors, such as extremist organisations.
Though limitations have been placed on the activities of the 5-Eyes countries, adjustments in the intelligence they can gather, has raised questions about how far-reaching their scope truly is? For instance, the original intention of the pact was to share information about intelligence gathered on foreign countries, not domestic surveillance. Yet discoveries from whistleblowers have demonstrated that vast amounts of data are being retained by some 5-Eyes nations.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden‘s leaked documents revealed a trove of compromising Western intelligence. These documents brought to light the widespread surveillance of the public’s online activities by the 5-Eyes. It also became clear that the intelligence-sharing alliance is more extensive than what was initially expected. The Snowden leak has prompted the group to move out of the shadows and into the public eye, with widely reported annual meetings and joint communiqués.
However, the question remains – just how far will the 5-Eyes go in conducting surveillance on each other and on ordinary citizens?
Can the West Trust its Own?
Cybersecurity has emerged as a growing area of concern in one of the world’s oldest espionage community. Despite its undercover nature, 5-Eyes member states are having a very public disagreement over what to do about Huawei – with the US campaigning to exclude the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from developing 5G infrastructure and selling their products amongst US allies.
Huawei mobile phone devices have proven to be very popular around the globe. As the second-largest smartphone maker in the world Huawei has sold more smartphones than Apple and is second only to Samsung. Despite its massive global presence, Huawei devices have been restricted from sale in the US – with the use of Huawei products by federal employees also restricted.
Revelations by the Telegraph allege that "Huawei staff have admitted to having worked with Chinese intelligence agencies in a 'mass trove' of employment records leaked online.” It is consequently feared that backdoor access across Huawei’s products could jeopardize economic competition and national security.
Consequently, Australia and New Zealand have sounded the alarm against Huawei's involvement in their 5G networks. Citing security concerns, the Australian government has stated that subject to extrajudicial review, “network integrity and availability” may be compromised. This subsequently presents too great a security risk.
In response, Chinese state media denounced Australia’s announcement, stating that Australian consumers would likely face higher costs and delays as a result of the effective exclusion of Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network. Indeed, this may be true.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to have weighed speed and cost in his decision to let 'high-risk vendors' maintain a foot in the 5G market. Despite warnings about potential security threats, it was decided that Huawei would be excluded from the network’s “core” functions, limiting to just 35% of the overall network. However, “sensitive” parts of the UK’s communications network “such as nuclear sites and military bases” would not be exposed.
In a world bombarded with threats to technology posed by nation states and cyber criminals, it is almost impossible to survive without taking protective measures. The 5-Eyes countries now find themselves wrestling with a new question – how can they balance between liberty, national security and the public interest in the age of globalization?
The UK government has found that compromise must be reached in order to balance potential risks and acquiring new technology. This involves keeping markets opens and engaging major service providers.
Long accustomed to their technological advantages, governments of the 5-Eyes must be agile and adapt to the notion of cyber security amidst the challenges of the digital age. However, in the face of growing economic and political mistrust between the East and West, how can both sides coexist?
Intelligence gathering is all about assessing one’s risk. Therefore, if 5-Eyes member states have any hope of retaining the confidence of their citizens, they must continue to guarantee essential freedoms and protections while staying true to the values of fair competition and free-market principles. Crucial to this is a reliance on relevant legislation to maintain credible authority.
5-Eyes countries need to reset their understanding of technological development, both to tolerate uncertainty and appreciate the value of diversity and resilience. Indeed, this is necessary if these nations are to safely manage individual freedom and national security whilst simultaneously advancing towards a technologically enhanced 5G future.