Editorial: Huawei - it's spying risk versus gains

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Huawei, Chinese Telecommunications company, considered a potential threat to national security by US. Photo / Natalie Slade
Huawei, Chinese Telecommunications company, considered a potential threat to national security by US. Photo / Natalie Slade

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. This week, New Zealand's Green Party and a US congressional intelligence committee were united on the threat from Chinese communications giant Huawei to national and commercial security.

They said involving Huawei in critical infrastructure projects would create the risk of technology being embedded for China's economic and military gain.

Huawei is a leading global producer of telecommunications switches and routers, and has New Zealand's national broadband project as one of its contracts.

The American warning was shrill but predictable in an election year as tensions increase over China's rise as a world power. Many allegations were made, but little evidence was provided publicly to back fears of Huawei interfering in clients' data through network equipment.

The company rubbishes the accusations as a form of trade protectionism to obstruct Chinese telecom businesses in the US market. Huawei has been barred from Australia's national broadband introduction because of similar security fears but is welcome in Great Britain and elsewhere.

The British solution has been to vet equipment randomly, using former intelligence agency staff.

The Greens' fears were less protectionist than those of the US intelligence committee but more party political. Party spokesman Gareth Hughes worried that government failures might result in taxpayers paying hundreds of millions through the Ultra Fast Broadband project to make it easier for "Beijing to potentially spy on" New Zealand.

It is always hard to prove that something has not happened. Without independent testing, Huawei is unlikely to be able to convince its opponents that its switches are standard issue, its network materials free of malware. The Huawei bid for the UFB work was vetted in advance but critics now fret at the supposed ineptitude of our communications intelligence agency, the GCSB.

Government ministers pronounce themselves satisfied that Huawei's involvement in the UFB is solely commercial and innocent. Presumably, as a fast-growing global player with backing from China Inc, it was also the most cost-effective tenderer for the work. Technology commentators recognise the potential risks but point out that equipment for most major communications firms is also made in China and open to the risk of security breaches.

New Zealand must balance the gains from dealing with a world-leading technology provider against the chance of that company, if it is found to have spied, risking its global reputation to learn secrets of the price of milk or details, say, of a tender process for sensitive farm land.

- NZ Herald

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