MWC19: Huawei comes out swinging with no-backdoor pledge

Huawei MWC
"We don't do bad things": Huawei rotating chair Guo Ping addresses MWC2019 in Barcelona. Image credit: GSMA / MWC 2019

Huawei‘s rotating chairman Guo Ping took full advantage of his morning keynote slot at MWC2019 in Barcelona Tuesday to not only glorify the company’s 5G prowess, but also push back against the US government’s campaign to ban Huawei gear in as many countries as possible.

“There has never been more interest in Huawei. We must be doing something right,” he opened with a grin.

Guo spent the first half of his talk touting Huawei’s 5G achievements, although even that included a sly dig at the US by citing a recent report from Zealer which said field tests of Huawei’s 5G gear yielded speeds 20 times faster than the commercial 5G service launched late last year in the US.

“So I fully understand what President Donald Trump said last week,” he said. “The United States needs powerful, faster, and smarter 5G.”

After the 5G promo, Guo shifted gears to talk about the cyber security issue that has shadowed the company in the past few months, and repeated Huawei’s earlier statement that national security fears over its equipment are unfounded.

“The US security accusation on our 5G has no evidence, nothing,” he said, adding that Huawei neither operates networks nor owns carrier data.

We don’t do bad things,” Guo said. “Here, let me say this as clearly as possible: Huawei has not and will never plant backdoors. And Huawei will  never allow anyone to plant backdoors in our equipment.”

Guo also said that cyber security is the responsibility not only of vendors, but every stakeholder in the ecosystem: operators, industry bodies and government regulators.

On the carrier side of the equation, Guo argued that 5G networks are private networks. “The boundaries between different networks are clear. Carriers can prevent external attacks with firewalls and security gateways. For internal threats, carriers can manage, monitor, and audit all vendors and partners to make sure their network elements are secure.”

Meanwhile, he called on the mobile industry and regulators to work together to make networks safer by standardizing verifiable cyber security requirements, citing the Network Equipment Security Assurance Scheme (NESAS) defined by the GSMA and 3GPP (which also includes input from government security agencies) as a model for the rest of the world to follow.

“Let the experts decide whether networks are safe or not,” he said.

Guo also called for a fact-based approach to cyber security. “We can’t use prisms, crystal balls, or politics to manage cyber security.”

Vodafone and the EC weigh in (sort of)

The row between Huawei and the Trump administration over 5G security has been the subject of discussion and gossip behind the scenes at MWC19. The US reportedly sent a larger than usual delegation to MWC this year to lobby allies to shun Huawei. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even gone as far as to say that the US might avoid partnering with any country that allowed its operators to deploy Huawei 5G gear.

However, Guo’s speech was the first from the main stage to address the elephant in the room. The closest the GSMA has come to an official statement on the matter arrived earlier this month, advocating greater vendor competition and greater industry-government cooperation to address security concerns (at least in the EU, where regulators are considering a Huawei ban).

While other speakers have not yet commented on the Huawei debate directly, two keynote speakers on Monday did raise the issue by following the GSMA example of avoiding naming names and focusing on the benefits of vendor competition, the ability of operators to vet vendor gear sufficiently, and the need to keep the debate fact-based.

‘We have three very significant [vendor] players, and what’s important strategically for us is a degree of resilience,” said Vodafone CEO Nick Read in an onstage interview. “You can’t be overly reliant on one or two players – you need a degree of choice to keep that resilience.”

Read added that it was disappointing that part of the 5G security narrative has been based on the notion that 5G is a completely new network, which is not true.

“In the end, 5G is just a layer on top of a 4G network,” he pointed out. “That 4G network already has a series of layers of security, from the radio all the way down into the core. So by adding 5G, you’re just adding another layer on top of a multi-layer of security. And that comes with its own security, which is at least as good if not better than the 4G layer.”

Read noted further that internet traffic is increasingly encrypted end to end, and Vodafone has beenworking for a long time with government security agencies in terms of assurance, testing and certification of network equipment.

“So the operators are very focused on a multi-layer approach, and we are trying to make sure that we are facts-based and that that we are managing it from a risk focus.”

Later on Monday, Mariya Gabriel, EU commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, also raised the security issue whilst outlining the EU’s policy position on fostering 5G investment, saying that while the European Commission was taking everyone’s views seriously, “nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts.”

That said, Gabriel added that whatever the outcome, any policy decision should be made at the EC level rather than be left to individual member states – otherwise the result could be fragmentation that could hamper the EC’s scheme for a digital single market.

“We are working on this important matter with priority and the commission will take steps soon,” she said.

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