The Intelligence and Security Committee, a group established by the British government to examine the extent of foreign involvement in the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure and its implication for national security, has raised questions about the independence of staff employed at the Cyber Security Evaluations Centre, or the Cell as it is commonly called.
Part of the work at the cell is to test equipment from Huawei for security vulnerabilities and ensure that the equipment doesn’t have any back-doors or easily exploitable weaknesses.
According to the report the Cell was formed due to a big contract win for Huawei from British Telecom (BT). The UK government engaged directly with Huawei UK and suggested the establishment of the evaluation center to increase confidence in the security of Huawei products.
Although staffed by security cleared UK personnel, the Cell is funded entirely by Huawei and remains under Huawei’s control. The report questions whether the staff, 34 who are paid and employed by Huawei, are sufficiently independent of Huawei to provide the necessary level of assurance about the company’s activities.
The Cell tests all updates to Huawei’s hardware and software for high-risk components before they are deployed on UK networks, however the center was only due to become fully operational at the end of 2011 (six years after Huawei won the BT contract). But now in 2013 the center is working at a reduced capacity, both in terms of staffing and remit, and witnesses have conceded that it is too soon to tell how effective it is.
Huawei’s trouble stem from the fact that the company was founded by Ren Zhengfei, a former officer of the People’s Liberation Army. Most of the concerns surrounding Huawei relate to its perceived links to the Chinese State. Due to these concerns a government committee in the US published a harsh assessment of Huawei’s reliability. The report concluded that “the risks associated with Huawei and ZTE’s provision of equipment to US critical infrastructure could undermine core US national-security interests”. In Australia the Government decided to exclude Huawei from any involvement in their National Broadband Network on national security grounds.
Huawei has denied having close connections to the Chinese government and has stressed that the company is 98.6% owned by its employees.