Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the government will decide before the federal election whether to join the United States and other Five Eyes intelligence allies in banning Chinese telecom giant Huawei from Canada’s next-generation 5G wireless networks.
The United States and Australia have already barred Huawei from their 5G telecommunications networks, while Britain and Canada have not yet made a decision. Last November, New Zealand’s spy agency stopped a domestic telecom firm from using the Chinese firm’s 5G equipment, citing significant security risks.
Mr. Goodale said a national-security review of Huawei is still under way and that he expects a cabinet decision well before Canadians go to the polls in October.
“We understand the importance and the urgency of the question,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “We want to make sure Canadians have access to the best and most beneficial 5G technology, and at the same time we want to make sure they are safe and that their systems are not compromised.”
Last week, a reported leak from Britain’s National Security Council indicated that the government of Prime Minister Theresa May had decided to allow Huawei – China’s biggest private firm – to play a limited role in non-core parts of Britain’s 5G network.
The report prompted a warning from a top U.S. official, who countered that the United States believes there is “no safe level” of involvement for Huawei in future wireless networks.
On Monday, Robert Strayer, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for cyberpolicy, called the reported decision “an unacceptable risk" and warned that Washington might rethink intelligence sharing with any country that allowed “unsecure and untrusted vendors” into its 5G networks.
Mr. Goodale gave a cautious response on Tuesday when asked if Canada was willing to risk being cut off from U.S. intelligence.
“We will very carefully weigh the opinions and advice of our Five Eyes allies, our G7 allies,” Mr. Goodale said. “The United States is always a reliable security partner with Canada, just as I would underline in bold letters that Canada is a very reliable partner to the United States. The relationship is good and valuable in both directions, and we need to make sure it is strong.”
A senior Canadian security official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told The Globe and Mail that Canada does not want to jeopardize its intelligence-sharing arrangement with the United States. The official stressed that Canada has so far kept Huawei out of the core networks of Canadian telecoms and noted that the Chinese company is not allowed to bid on Canadian government contracts.
But the same official acknowledged that 5G technology is more vulnerable to backdoor intrusions by malicious agents because there are more entry points.
Former U.S. Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff told The Globe that the United States would have to dial back its intelligence sharing with Five Eyes allies that allowed Huawei in 5G networks because there is no way to effectively mitigate the risk if it is any part of such a network.
“If you are concerned about the security of the networks, it is going to constrain your ability to share information,” Mr. Chertoff said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t be co-operative, but it may mean that you either transmit things in an old-fashioned way or even that you have certain requirements about how data is held so that it doesn’t enter that network.”
Mr. Chertoff said the retribution China has already dealt to Canada over the detention of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou – including restricting Canadian shipments of canola and imprisoning two Canadians – should be a warning against granting Chinese interests more potential leverage over Canada. He called China’s recent behaviour in this regard a “blinking red light” of alarm for the government.
“If you are worried that the Chinese are going to stop buying canola because they don’t like what you are doing with respect to a legal case, what is going to happen if they can close off the network? That is really going to give them leverage," he said.
Jonathan Miller, a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, says Western intelligence agencies must avoid being overconfident about their ability to detect and block risks in Huawei telecommunications hardware.
“The challenge is that the capability gap with the Chinese is narrowing and there can be overconfidence sometimes on the ability to manage the risks,” he said.
“This is magnified of course by the political risks associated with Huawei and its position under China’s new security and intelligence legislation.”
Meanwhile, Huawei has hired a former top aide to Stephen Harper, Alykhan Velshi, to sell the company in Canada. He has been appointed vice-president of corporate affairs for Huawei Canada.