Why has the UK chosen to use Huawei infrastructure when, as far as I know, other members of the Five Eyes and many other Western governments have chosen not to?

Is it a case of a pre/post-Brexit Britain being weaker and therefore needing all the friends it can get, thus not wanting to irritate China, or am I reading too much into it?

  • 1
    Has the UK announced its decision on the matter? I know most reports speculate the UK government will use Huawei equipment but is there a formal announcement?
    – yannis
    May 2 '19 at 9:33
  • No, a very good point.
    – Rich
    May 2 '19 at 9:41
  • 5
    We made that decision quite a long time ago, several of our major mobile operators already have ~50% Huawei equipment in the 4G network, including the core network. If we were serious about not using it, we'd have to shut down our existing mobile networks, and so would most other non-US countries. This is only in the news because the US are making a fuss, in reality the stable door is open and the horse bolted years ago.
    – patstew
    May 2 '19 at 14:41

It's difficult to say for sure as the arguments are not made public.

However, we can speculate that it is most likely due to commercial pressure. Huawei dominates the 5G market, being well ahead in terms of shipping hardware and holding many of the key patents. Trying to build a 5G network without Huawei is going to be more expensive and take longer.

That is also speculated to be one of the reasons why the US in particular is objecting to Huawei so strongly. As well as being engaged in a very public trade war with China, US companies have been surpassed on 5G technology and face having to both catch up and licence Huawei patents on the technology they need. Licencing usually involves reciprocal licencing of their patents, or cash.

Since the UK does not have much of a commercial interest in 5G hardware beyond using it, the only incentive to actual ban Huawei hardware is to keep the US happy. The security concerns seem to be fairly weak, with little evidence of backdoors and even less to show that the alternatives are any better. Indeed the only evidence that is available shows that US hardware is systematically attacked by the US government and completely untrustworthy.

  • 4
    Fair point about the US, but I would argue it's lot harder for their spy agencies. The US computer industry is dominated by private companies that aren't much closer to the government than rich people in general are, and while the government sometimes has been able to get them to spy or use a flawed cryptographic standard, they usually can't, though they still benefit from knowledge of and proximity to the systems. By contrast, China's major technology companies often are either somewhat nationalized or have close government ties.
    – Obie 2.0
    May 2 '19 at 10:00
  • 12
    @Obie2.0 if you check the leaked Snowden documents, you can see that the NSA targets, for example, Cisco hardware with zero day exploits. It also intercepts Cisco hardware as it is being shipped to customers, and installs advanced persistent threat backdoors. No cooperation needed.
    – user
    May 2 '19 at 10:05
  • 5
    Yes, I'm aware of that, and it's definitely easier for them to do that to US hardware than Chinese hardware. But China has an even broader array of options available: for instance, they may be able to install their backdoors at the factory.
    – Obie 2.0
    May 2 '19 at 10:11
  • 2
    @user On the other hand, China has a (very recent) record of adding parts to boards that aren't on the schematics. And those parts happen to be backdoors into the system.
    – reirab
    May 2 '19 at 19:45
  • 3
    @reirab That Bloomberg article is also highly contested. Most other news agencies have been calling it false since it came out. You can google "China chips on motherboards" and see more articles questioning Bloomberg's reporting than you will find supporting it. Supermicro did recently stop using their parts, but that seems to be more for customer comfort, than due to anything actually being found.
    – JMac
    May 2 '19 at 20:15

The UK is caught between a rock and a hard place (well worth a listen).

On the one hand side, you have a big trade partner that's made all the more important with the looming Brexit, China, and its national champion, Huawei. The latter is enormous (because of China's own market), reportedly has better and cheaper equipment than the next two big players (Ericson and Nokia), and accuses the US of creating a smokescreen for protectionism.

On the other hand side, you have an important strategic partner that is also made all the more important with the looming Brexit, the US, with its trade war with China, and its security concerns over control of NATO's core 5G network.

The evidence for security issues and potential government overreach is mixed. GCHQ got to review Huawei's source code and found no backdoors. However, they also held no punches and basically spelt out that what they saw was a mess of spaghetti. There's also concern that, while Huawei seems independent today, China could tell it to do a few things down the road -- and the Chinese government isn't one you can really tell no to.

Anyway, there was a recent leak that suggested the UK would allow Huawei to supply 5G network equipment except in core parts of the network. In doing so, May's government would make (already has made...) both sides unhappy. But then, there is no good choice here. If she sides with the US, she'll really piss off China; and vice versa.


The UK has the "Huawei cyber security evaluation centre" in Banbury, Oxfordshire. The staff are Huawei employees who hold UK security clearance and also report to the UK services. This allows them to review the security of Huawei products in great detail. You can read their report. Their conclusions were that there were the usual amounts of poor code quality but no apparent deliberate backdoors.

I'm not aware of comparable arrangements in other countries.

  • 4
    "but no apparent deliberate backdoors" - they don't need to be deliberate backdoors (and it's very easy to hide backdoors: underhanded-c.org ). I assume that Cisco, Nokia, etc have their own undisclosed vulnerabilities that are presumably already being exploited by those in-the-know, but (personally) I'd rather be spied-on by the Americans and Finns than by the Chinese because while the Americans will spy on you for anti-terrorism and commercial advantage reasons, the Chinese will do the same and also spy for anti-dissent reasons too. And I value dissent.
    – Dai
    May 2 '19 at 15:25
  • 1
    @Dai I can't think of an example of someone getting deported from the UK to China for anti-China dissent, whereas there are plenty of high profile examples with the US.
    – patstew
    May 2 '19 at 16:26
  • 1
    @Dai Oh, come on. Are you dishonest or just stupid? Of course US spies on dissenters, then they frame them for terrorism or espionage to fool fools like you.
    – M i ech
    May 17 '19 at 7:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .