Top Cybersecurity Concerns with Huawei 5G Dominance

The Internet of Things (IoT) is creating a need to progress cellular capabilities to provide necessary support to currently 14 billion IoT devices connected globally and growing to between 20 and 50 billion devices by 2020 (Gartner and Cisco). This includes current mobile devices, computers, smart speakers and televisions, and will include more items like digital locks, security cameras, vehicles, and household appliances. Currently, the IPv4 address space is sparse and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) ratified IPv6 as an Internet Standard in July 2017. The growth of connected devices requires a larger IP scheme and network infrastructure that supports the connectivity of billions of devices at high speeds.

The next iteration for robust infrastructure is 5G, providing bandwidth up to 20 gigabits per second.  This will be implemented this year, but a complete transition will take many years, which Huawei, a Chinese Corporation, is currently leading in technology. Huawei is the second largest provider of cellular phones worldwide and the largest manufacturer of network equipment.

The U.S. Government has taken a decided stance to block the use of Huawei in the United States, filing a complaint that bans all government agencies from engaging in purchasing from Huawei and bars third parties who use the company’s equipment (BBC). Huawei is currently suing the United States because of the ban. The U.S. is not the only country taking a cautious stance with Huawei, however. They’re joined by Germany, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and Japan, all of which are citing major security concerns with the company (MIT Technology Review).

Security Concerns with Huawei dominating the 5G space:

1.  Security Vulnerabilities in Reconfiguring Networks

The first concern is that newer 5G network equipment is almost entirely software and constantly reconfigures, challenging security agencies, who examine equipment and software for vulnerabilities and security flaws or backdoors (FreshAir). When an organization is unable to identify weaknesses in devices with constantly changing software, it becomes impossible to implement security controls to limit vulnerabilities to an acceptable level, making an organization’s or state’s data accessible.

2.  Espionage & Interference

The second concern is the possibility of China using Huawei to conduct espionage or disrupt communications. A seven-month investigation into China’s Intellectual Property (IP) theft, led by the United States Trade Representative, estimates Chinese theft of American IP has cost the U.S. between $225 billion to $600 billion annually (CNN).

China has also used the Internet to enable rampant government oppression within their borders and is now focusing on other countries and foreign businesses. China is blocking and changing data, both coming into the country and going out of the country, using what Weaver, a network security expert at the International Computer Science Institute, has coined the Great Cannon (MIT Technology Review).

It is also concerning that China will likely continue to use the Internet to control narratives, as they did when Marriott listed Tibet and Hong Kong as separate countries from China, forcing an apology from the hotel chain. Chinese officials are also going after other companies that “misidentify” Taiwan (MIT Technology Review).

3.  Foreign Nation-State Controlled Networks

The third concern, and biggest security concern for the United States, is the vastness of a network controlled by a foreign company and potentially adversarial government. As Sanger (2019) reports, “classified intelligence reports from the U.S. have warned that China would one day use Huawei to penetrate American networks for cyber-espionage or cyberattacks.” Chinese private industry and the State are tightly tied with companies being answerable to the government. Current Chinese laws state that any Chinese telecom companies would have to participate in Chinese intelligence operations (BBC).

If Huawei controls the 5G network infrastructure, the company and the Chinese government have a tremendous advantage to collect, disseminate, and control data and critical infrastructure. With IoT expanding the attack surface it is important for countries and companies to advance their security.

Because of the persistent threat environment, companies require an adaptive security program.  Hiring a Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) to implement a security solution would help U.S. companies prepare for current and future threats by monitoring, analyzing, encrypting, and assisting in security strategies against adversarial entities.