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Ciaran Martin, UK's cybersecurity chief, rebuffs US on Huawei risk

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 23/2/2019 Zen Soo
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Amid strong US pressure on its allies to exclude Huawei from upcoming 5G networks due to national security concerns, Ciaran Martin, head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), went on stage in Brussels on Wednesday and told the world – in no uncertain terms – that the UK could handle the risks.

“Because of our 15 years of dealings with [Huawei] and 10 years of a formally agreed mitigation strategy which involves detailed provision of information, we have a wealth of understanding of the company,” Martin said in a speech at the Cybersec Brussels Leaders’ Foresight forum.

“And, based on our hard-headed assessment of risk and our detailed knowledge of how networks work, we are putting in place our own plans for helping our operators to manage these risks.”

Martin is the chief executive of London-headquartered NCSC, the British authority on cybersecurity and an arm of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the country’s signals intelligence agency.

His comments in Brussels essentially represent a stance that says despite intelligence from the US provided to the UK as part of the Five Eyes alliance, Britain has not seen enough to warrant a complete ban on Huawei in the country.

Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are among US allies that have either banned or are reviewing whether to allow Huawei equipment to be installed in their telecoms networks. The US contends that Huawei's equipment could be used for spying purposes for the Chinese government, a claim that Huawei has vehemently denied.

No evidence of malicious activity by Huawei, says UK cybersecurity boss

Martin is no stranger to the world of cybersecurity and intelligence. Before being appointed to head NCSC in 2016, he was the director general for government and industry cybersecurity at GCHQ, and is still a member of the board there. Martin also spent three years as head of security and intelligence at the British Cabinet office from 2008 to 2011.

He also chairs the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HKSEC) Oversight Board, set up in 2014, which assesses any risks that might occur from Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s national telecoms infrastructure.

“Our regime is arguably the toughest and most rigorous oversight regime in the world for Huawei,” Martin said in Brussels.

He argued that if the telecom supplier market consolidated to only a “tiny number of viable options”, it would not make for good cybersecurity, regardless of whether those options are “Western, Chinese or from anywhere else”.

“Any company in an excessively dominant market position will not be incentivised to take cybersecurity seriously,” he said, rejecting the notion that Huawei equipment has higher risks just because the company is Chinese.

“And at the same time that company could also become the prime target for attack for the globe’s most potent cyber attackers.”

However, in the hours following Martin’s speech, New Zealand’s Andrew Little, the minister responsible for the country’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), reportedly told media that the briefing he received on Huawei differed from Martin’s statements.

“When I was in the UK at the end of last month I met with the senior officials of some of their agencies, including the head of the GCHQ. It wasn’t quite the briefing that I got about [Huawei],” Little said to reporters in New Zealand.

New Zealand, which is also part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, last November rejected telecom operator Spark’s request to use Huawei’s 5G equipment for its networks in the country, citing national security concerns. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday clarified that Huawei has never been ruled out from building the country’s 5G network.

After Martin’s speech in Brussels, he told reporters that “if there was evidence of malevolence” by Huawei, he would be obliged to report it – and that has yet to be done.

“So I hope that covers it,” he said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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