Spy bosses from countries in the Five Eyes network held a secret meeting in Nova Scotia in July to discuss concerns about security concerns about China and Huawei, according to an AFR report.
Telcos' pending upgrades to 5G mobile networks were apparently a topic of particular concern as the agency heads supped on lobster bisque.
In the months that followed that July 17 dinner, an unprecedented campaign has been waged by those present – Australia, the US, Canada, New Zealand and the UK – to block Chinese tech giant Huawei from supplying equipment for their next-generation wireless networks, the paper says.
While security agencies have been wary about publicly discussing Huawei, international security expert Paul Buchanan says it's noticeable that earlier this year, the alliance was fractured, with the US and Australia taking a hard line on Huawei, banning it from mobile networks, fibre rollouts and international cable projects, while the UK, Canada and New Zealand where happy to allow business (or in NZ's case, even encourage it) with the Chinese company.
Now, "All of the Five Eyes partners are coming into line", Buchanan says.
The GCSB blocked a Spark proposal to use Huawei gear in its 5G upgrade in a decision made public on November 28. "Significant national security risks", were cited by the GCSB, but not detailed.
British Telecom said on December 5 that it would not use Huawei for core elements of its 5G upgrade and, more strikingly, confirmed an FT report that it would strip Huawei gear from its 4G and 3G networks on security agency advice. (Here, GCSB Andrew Little told the Herald it was his understanding the Huawei security issue was restricted to 5G.)
The same day Canadian authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the behest of the US. Meng was granted bail earlier this week.
Meng is charged with sanctions-busting rather than espionage, but accusations persist of Huawei co-operating with the Chinese Government on illicit surveillance.
"I believe the US intelligence community consensus that Huawei works hand in glove with Chinese Intelligence," says Buchanan, who worked as a policy analyst for the US Secretary of Defence and an adviser to the Pentagon before coming to New Zealand to work as a university lecturer. He now runs a consultancy.
For its part, Huawei has said no evidence has ever been tabled of wrongdoing, despite it being under more intense scrutiny than telco infrastructure rivals Nokia Networks and Ericsson (which it points out have joint-venture partnerships in China).
"Any perceived risk can be mitigated and managed in a mature manner, as has happened in the past," he says.
Maturity hasn't always been the watchword of the debate.
The AFR says Australian Signals Directorate director-general Mike Burgess "dabbled in some light trolling of Huawei", after he joined Twitter earlier this year.
On November 21 when a Huawei executive boasted of successfully separating the core and access parts of a 5G network in New Zealand he tagged the ASD boss on his post.
To the surprise of most Burgess replied; "Thanks for sharing. In my business, I've never seen anything 'fully isolated'."
GCSB director-general Andrew Hampton says there was no collusion ahead of the decision to block Huawei from Spark's 5G upgrade.
"The decision I made to identify a significant network security risk with Spark's recent network change notification was an independent regulatory decision made under TICSA," he tells the Herald.
TICSA is the Telecommunications (Interception Capability & Security) Act 2013, which requires network operators like Spark to run technology upgrades past the GCSB for approval.
"That legislation prescribes the process I must follow and what I need to consider. In undertaking this regulatory function I did not come under any pressure from Five Eye partners," Hampton says.
"GCSB does share intelligence and technical information with its Five Eye partners and New Zealand receives a significant benefit from this relationships. That said, Five Eye partners are very respectful of New Zealand's independence and our legislative framework. There is a long-standing practice that I don't comment on specific meetings."