The decision to give Huawei limited access to the development of Britain’s 5G network, first reported in the Daily Telegraph, was taken despite warnings about the security risks from ministers including Gavin Williamson, defence secretary.
The bits Huawei is not allowed to run are the parts where sensitive information such as billing and customer details are stored. The non-core elements are the aerials, and base stations on masts and rooftops and transmission equipment, which telecoms companies argue are passive in that data merely passes through and cannot be compromised.
According to one person briefed on the discussions, Mrs May approved “in principle” the recent assessment by the National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, that the risk from Huawei to future 5G telecoms networks could be mitigated.
In a blog published in February, the NCSC’s technical director Ian Levy set out some of the possible restrictions Huawei and any 5G supplier would face reducing the risk.
Levy wrote that security could be improved by ensuring multiple vendors, keeping risky suppliers out of the most sensitive core parts of the 5G network and “enhanced monitoring”.
However, the move might hack off the US which is bullying its allies to reject Huawei gear as part of its trade war on China. The UK has so far resisted pressure from the US, with intelligence chiefs arguing they already have systems in place to monitor and protect critical telecoms networks.
Earlier this month Germany said it would not exclude Huawei from the auction to build its 5G network. Jochen Homann, president of the German federal network agency, told the Financial Times his agency had yet to see evidence to back up US concerns.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, tweeted that allowing Huawei to build some of the UK’s 5G infrastructure would “cause allies to doubt our ability to keep data secure and erode the trust essential to #FiveEyes co-operation”. He added: “There’s a reason others have said no.”
Huawei has always denied being controlled by the Chinese government or any suggestion that its equipment could be used for espionage purposes. A spokesperson said the green light “means that UK businesses and consumers will have access to the fastest and most reliable networks” and said the company was pleased the UK is “continuing to take an evidence-based approach”.