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Critics: U.K.'s Chinese Telecom Deal Is A Cybersecurity Risk

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Is the U.K.'s deal with Huawei a security risk? The United States says yes, fretting about the information security for a vital ally. The U.K. decided it was safe enough to buy 5G equipment from a Chinese company that offers far cheaper equipment than others as digital networks expand and improve. This decision was announced as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to visit Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leading U.K. officials today. Alan Woodward has been watching all of this. He is a professor at the University of Surrey and has consulted with U.K. Internet security officials.

Welcome back to the program, sir.

ALAN WOODWARD: Morning.

INSKEEP: What is it exactly that Britain says it is willing to buy or willing to have its telecom companies buy from Huawei?

WOODWARD: It is limited. It's because - I think the U.K. accepts that there is a risk. Nothing's ever zero risk. There is a risk. So what they're doing is they're saying they're going to limit Huawei equipment to the periphery of the network, so effectively the antennas. And then they're going to limit it to a certain number as well.

INSKEEP: And we're talking here, of course, about the wireless network on which we're using phones, on which we're using Internet. If you're in the U.K., already things may pass through Huawei equipment, and that's going to continue to be on the upgraded network, right?

WOODWARD: Absolutely. In fact, 5G has been rolling out here since last May, and most of the antennas that are being used already from Huawei - they've got something like 28% of the market already.

INSKEEP: Now, you're saying that Britain has limited Huawei's use here, meaning that there are more vital or more central pieces of infrastructure that they will not be buying from Huawei. Is that right?

WOODWARD: Correct. The so-called core of the network, the bit that really authenticates you, the roots (ph) you call, the bit where you could really do the eavesdropping if you like, that bit - they're going to be restricted out of. So they're going to be restricted only to the radio access areas, and even then, only to about a third of it, no more than a third of it.

INSKEEP: Do you find this as an outside expert sufficient to contain the risk? Because it does sound like my phone call, my signal, my Internet search, my vital email, my text might still be or would still be going through a Huawei antenna. Could it be spied upon in some way by China, which is the U.S. theory here?

WOODWARD: I think that's a bit of a red herring. I think the bigger risk is potentially disrupting the network because this is not about phone calls and data. This is about looking ahead 10 years to when we're all very dependent on 5G and it's running our cars and our traffic lights and our building systems. And if someone could disrupt it at that point, that's when it could get really nasty. However, the big problem from my perspective is the market is broken. We have very little choice. There are - in the U.K., there are already three main vendors, of which Huawei has won.

Now, if you were to take them out, you're restricting the diversity of vendors. And that's in itself is a security risk because there's nothing to say that one of the other vendors, as good as they might be, might not unintentionally introduce a flaw - a security flaw. So it really is a balancing act. And I think what the U.K. is saying is this is about mitigating the risk. Not saying it's - there's no risk, but it's about mitigating that risk.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, do British officials suspect the U.S. is just going after Huawei for trade purposes because the U.S. is pushing back on Chinese companies in so many ways?

WOODWARD: I think that basically there is a suspicion that this is tied up with geopolitics, absolutely. And that's why they're basically saying we believe we can do enough. But the long-term ambition is to basically line up with what the Americans have said anyway.

INSKEEP: Alan Woodward, thanks so much.

WOODWARD: Pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's a visiting professor at the University of Surrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.