UK national security was put at risk by the ease with which Chinese telecoms firm Huawei entered the UK's critical national infrastructure (CNI) industry, according to a damning report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).
Questions about Huawei have dominated the headlines over the last 12 months, with officials attempting to ban the company from operating in the US due to fears over national security.
However, the UK has had a much more open approach to Huawei, with companies such as EE and BT using its kit to power their networks.
The ISC has since investigated this situation and, in its damning report presented to the prime minister and made public on Thursday, it has raised concerns that Huawei was able to gain a major stake in the control of CNI in the UK without due scrutiny.
In particular, the ISC cited concerns that when BT first revealed its intention to work with Huawei in 2003, civil servants did not consult ministers as they did not want to impede a major financial deal within the business world. The ISC has argued this was a major oversight.
“There was no justification for failing to consult ministers about the situation when BT first notified officials of Huawei’s interest. Such a sensitive decision, with potentially damaging ramifications, should have been put in the hands of ministers. The Committee was shocked that officials chose not to inform, let alone consult, ministers on such an issue," it said.
The ISC said the incident highlighted the lack of clear protocols about how companies operating in CNI areas should liaise with governments about their intentions to work with foreign suppliers.
“The failure in this case [with BT] to consult ministers seems to indicate a complacency, which was extraordinary given the seriousness of the issue,” the report states.
Huawei has long dismissed concerns with its equipment by saying it is all open for testing at its own facilities in the UK. This, though, was again cited by the ISC as a major security concern.
“We remain concerned that a Huawei-run Cell is responsible for providing assurance about the security of Huawei products,” it said. “A self-policing arrangement is highly unlikely either to provide, or to be seen to be providing, the required levels of security assurance. We therefore strongly recommend that the staff in the Cell are Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) employees.”
As a result, the ISC said national security has been put at risk by the failure of government to properly assess the use of Huawei's equipment within UK CNI.
"The government’s duty to protect the safety and security of its citizens should not be compromised by fears of financial consequences, or lack of appropriate protocols," it stated. "However, a lack of clarity around procedures, responsibility and powers means that national security issues have risked, and continue to risk, being overlooked."
However, the report appears to stop short of proposing any form of ban on Huawei, claiming it would prove unworkable.
"It is not practicable to seek to constrain CNI companies to UK suppliers, nor would that necessarily provide full protection given the global nature of supply chains," the report stated.
BT said it always makes sure “security is at the heart” of the firm’s decision making processes when working with suppliers, and acknowledged this was highlighted in the report.
“The experts at GCHQ say BT is an ‘exemplar’ and that the UK network has not been at risk due to the measures we have taken,” it said.
“Our testing regime enables us to enjoy constructive relationships with many suppliers across the globe. One of these is Huawei, with whom we have had a long and constructive relationship since 2005.”
V3 contacted Huawei for comment on the report’s finding but had received no reply at the time of publication.
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