As the Liberal government prepares to unfurl its policy on next-generation mobile networks, global security experts say all signs point to the exclusion of Chinese vendor Huawei Technologies from the long-awaited blueprint.
The development of 5G, or fifth-generation, networks will give people speedier online connections and provide vast data capacity to meet ravenous demand as more and more things link to the internet and innovations such as virtual reality, immersive gaming and autonomous vehicles emerge.
The opposition Conservatives have long pressed the Liberals to deny Huawei a role in building the country’s 5G infrastructure, saying it would allow Beijing to spy on Canadians more easily.
Some contend Huawei’s participation could give it access to an array of digital information gleaned from how, when and where Canadian customers use internet-connected devices. In turn, the theory goes, Chinese security agencies could force the company to hand over the personal information.
These concerns flow from the fact China’s National Intelligence Law says Chinese organizations and citizens shall support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work.
Huawei insists it is a fiercely independent company that does not engage in espionage for anyone, including Beijing.
“We sell in 180 countries around the world,” said Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs. “We have to comply with the laws of each of those countries. And if we were to violate the trust, we would find ourselves only selling in one country.”
Relationship with allies a consideration
Regardless of whether Huawei poses a genuine security risk, the concerns have given rise to a general notion countries cannot afford to gamble on a telecommunications firm that is supported enthusiastically by Beijing, said Wesley Wark, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
“The company is just too closely aligned perceptually to the Chinese regime to allow western states to do anything else,” Wark said. “And they do have alternatives.”
Velshi said Huawei Canada hopes — and expects — that any decision the federal government makes on 5G policy will be “based on technology and not politics.”
He also emphasizes that most of Huawei’s approximately 1,600 employees in Canada are involved in research and development as well as marketing products other than network equipment for telecom operators.
“The reality is, we have a diversified business in Canada,” Velshi said. “That’s why we sell smartphones in Canada, we sell earbuds, we sell laptops.”
While there has been considerable focus on the Huawei question, the government’s 5G review is a much broader, strategic look at how the incipient technology can spur Canada’s economy.
“However, in order to leverage this opportunity for economic growth through 5G, the safety and security of the technology must be ensured,” say briefing notes prepared earlier this year for Bill Blair, then public safety minister.
“Incidents resulting from the exploitation of vulnerabilities by malicious actors will be more difficult to safeguard against, and could have a broader impact than in previous generations of wireless technology.”
Whether by happenstance or federal design, decisions made months or even years ago in foreign cabinet meetings and corporate boardrooms are likely to profoundly shape the Canadian 5G rollout.
Three of Canada’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance — the United States, Britain and Australia — have taken decisive steps to curb the use of Huawei gear in their countries’ respective 5G networks.
The federal government acknowledges that the U.S. has strongly encouraged countries to tread carefully on 5G security considerations, noting an American delegation visited Canada in March 2020 to discuss the issue with various ministers and government officials.
The U.S. has made it clear Canada has “got to get on board” if it wants to remain part of the club, said Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University.
“It’s the security premium that you pay, not just nationally, but for being a partner in privileged security alliances like the Five Eyes. There’s no free lunch, you can’t have it both ways,” Hampson said.
“This is the big reckoning that we’re facing now. And I think it’s pretty clear which way the government’s gonna jump.”
Legacy of two Michaels detention
Canada’s 5G policy announcement has been effectively shelved for the last three years by a tense geopolitical drama that played out between Ottawa and Beijing.
Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, in December 2018 at the request of the United States, where she was wanted over allegations of violating sanctions on Iran.
The move clearly angered Beijing, and two Canadians working in China — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — were arrested soon after on accusations of endangering national security, a move widely seen as retaliation against Ottawa.
The U.S. recently worked out a deferred prosecution agreement in Meng’s case, allowing for her release, and Beijing permitted the two Michaels, as they came to be known, to fly home to Canada.
Meanwhile, major Canadian telecom companies managed the uncertainty by working with Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia and South Korea’s Samsung to help build their 5G networks.
Bell Canada, for one, had little to say about the coming federal announcement. “We don’t have any comment other than to note we are happy with our 5G network providers Ericsson and Nokia,” said spokeswoman Caroline Audet.
Huawei points out the company’s involvement in Canada’s existing mobile networks has never led to any security-related complaints, from customers or the government, about its equipment.
“And it continues to be an important part of Canada’s telecommunications network today,” Velshi said.
Even so, should Canada prohibit the firm’s involvement in 5G, it would raise questions about the fate of legacy Huawei equipment in previously installed networks.
The government notes the Canadian Security Review Program has been in place since 2013 to address cybersecurity risks.
The Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyberspy agency, works with telecom companies and equipment vendors to exclude certain equipment from sensitive areas of Canadian networks and ensure mandatory testing of gear before it is used in less vulnerable systems.
The know-how developed through the program will be important in assessing the cyberthreats and risks of emerging technology, the government says.