Canada’s military wants the federal government to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. from supplying equipment for the next generation of wireless infrastructure, according to a senior Canadian official with knowledge of the matter.
National security agencies, the military and the Department of Innovation are conducting a cybersecurity review to determine whether Huawei’s 5G technology would be a security risk to Canada. The review also examines the costs to consumers and major telecom carriers of restricting 5G equipment suppliers.
The official, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying because they are not authorized to discuss the subject publicly, said senior military leaders, including Canadian Forces chief of defence staff General Jonathan Vance, have told senior levels of government they believe Huawei would threaten national security.
The military believes Huawei is not a trusted vendor because its 5G equipment could be used for Chinese espionage or to disable critical infrastructure during an international crisis, the official said. It is also concerned that allowing Huawei into 5G could jeopardize security co-operation with the United States and intelligence sharing among in the Five Eyes partnership of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defence, said the military can’t comment on the matter.
Right now, Huawei gear is used only in the peripheral parts of wireless networks, not in the core, where data traffic is managed.
The federal cabinet has several options: the status quo, the status quo plus tougher checks on Huawei’s 5G wireless systems, or an outright ban.
John Turnbull, a retired brigadier-general who worked in military signals intelligence, said the Defence Department would not be basing its recommendation on technical analysis, but on Canada’s relationship with Washington.
“This Five Eyes relationship is pretty important to DND and to the military intelligence world,” he said. “I’m not sure how many people really understand 5G, but they do understand economics and they do understand power plays. And there are two big economic spheres of influence here, and when we are forced to pick a side, it tends to be with the U.S. for lots of excellent reasons that go well beyond IT security.”
Intelligence and cybersecurity officials in the United States and Australia are adamant that Huawei equipment anywhere in the network is an unacceptable security vulnerability. Washington has threatened to scale back sharing of highly classified intelligence with allies that allow Huawei gear in their 5G networks.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service also sees Huawei as a cybersecurity threat, and wants it barred from 5G networks.
The Globe reported in November that CSIS is at odds with the Communications Security Establishment, the electronic surveillance agency. CSE has said robust testing and monitoring of Huawei’s 5G equipment can mitigate potential security risks, senior officials told The Globe.
A senior official with knowledge of Ottawa’s deliberations said Canada realizes it must take U.S. security concerns seriously, and indicated that the opinion of CSIS carries a lot of weight at the moment. The official said the CSE’s confidence that it could manage the risk is the agency’s habitual view on such matters.
The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The United States and Australia have forbidden wireless carriers to use Huawei’s 5G mobile technology. New Zealand has blocked one domestic telecom carrier’s proposal to build a 5G network with Huawei equipment. Japan’s three major telecom giants say they will exclude Huawei’s gear.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently decided to give Huawei a limited role in its 5G networks.
Like CSE, Britain’s cybersecurity agency – Government Communications Headquarters – argued the Huawei risk could be mitigated by keeping it out of the core of the network, testing its equipment and limiting the Chinese telecom to 35 per cent of the periphery.
The Americans and Australians say Huawei answers to China’s ruling Communist Party and could be compelled to help Beijing spy on or sabotage Western networks. Chinese law says companies must “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work” when asked.
Over the past decade, Canadian wireless companies have added Huawei gear to their cellular networks. The equipment is on the periphery, in the radio access networks of cell towers. It is not in the core of any network, in keeping with a directive the government made for security reasons.
A ban could saddle Canadian wireless carriers with hundreds of millions of dollars in extra costs and upgrades, industry officials say. Bell Canada and Telus Communications, which use Huawei extensively in their existing networks, would have to remove and replace gear to accommodate a different supplier’s equipment. Bell and Telus want to use Huawei 5G gear, while Rogers will use Sweden’s Ericsson.
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