With the controversy over the US and its allies adopting Huawei kit generating more heat than light, I think perhaps it’s time to don my mathematician’s hat and take a look at what could and couldn’t really be at stake here. Who could be spying on us, and how?
Much of the commentary on this is on the level of legislating the value of pi. That is to say, a fundamental conflict with basic laws of nature. At the heart of this is Trump’s ranting about China spying on us: the idea that a 5g router (or any other infrastructure component) could spy on his intelligence services’ communications is on the level of worrying about catching cold from reading my blog because I sneezed while writing it.
At least, a router acting on its own. A router in collaboration with other agents could plausibly be a different story, but more on that later.
To set the scene, I can recommend Sky’s historical perspective: Huawei’s 5G network could be used for spying – while the West is asleep at the wheel. This looks back to the era of British domination of the world’s communications infrastructure, and how we successfully used that to eavesdrop German wartime communications. It also traces the British company involved, which was bought by Vodafone in 2012.
Taking his lesson from history, Sky’s correspondent concludes that if the Brits and the Americans could do it (the latter a longstanding conspiracy theory more recently supported by the Snowden leaks), then so could the Chinese. Of Huawei (a private company), he says:
[founder] Ren Zhengfei … has said his firm does not spy for China, and that he would not help China spy on someone even if required by Chinese law.
Personally, I’m inclined to believe him.
But it may also be a promise he is unable to keep, even if he wants to. The state comes before everything.
which might just be plausible, with the proviso that it would risk destroying China’s world-leading company and a powerhouse of its economy.
But the historical analogy misses one crucial difference in the modern world. Modern encryption. Maths that emerged (despite the US government’s strenuous efforts to suppress it) around the 1980s, and continues to evolve, while also being routinely used online, ensures that traffic passing through Huawei-supplied infrastructure carries exactly zero information of the kind historically used to decrypt cyphers, such as (famously) the Enigma. Encryption absolutely defeats the prospect of China doing what Britain and America did. And – particularly since Snowden – encryption is increasingly widely deployed, even for data whose security is of very little concern, such as a blog at wordpress.org.
Unless of course the encryption is compromised elsewhere. The spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. Or the fake certificate that enables an imposter to impersonate a trusted website or correspondent. These are real dangers, but none of them is under Huawei’s (let alone the Chinese government’s) control or influence.
Looking at it another way, there’s a very good reason your online banking uses HTTPS – the encrypted version of HTTP. It’s what protects you from criminals listening in and stealing your data, and gaining access to your account. The provenance of the network infrastructure is irrelevant: the risk you need to protect against is that there is any compromised component between you and your bank. Which is exactly what encryption does.
So why is the US government attacking Huawei so vigorously, not merely banning its use there but also threatening its allies with sanctions? I can see two plausible explanations:
- Pure protectionism. Against the first major Chinese technology company to be not merely competitive with but significantly ahead of its Western competitors in a field. And against the competitive threat of 5G rollout giving Europe and Asia a big edge over the US.
- The US intelligence agencies’ own spying on us.
OK, having mooted (2), it’s time to return to my earlier remark about the possibility of a router collaborating with another agent in spying with us. The spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. There’s nothing new about malware (viruses, etc) that spy on you: for example, they might seek to log keypresses to steal your passwords (this is why financial institutions routinely make you enter some part of your credentials using mouse and menus rather than from the keyboard – it makes it much harder for malware to capture them). Or alternatively, an application (like a mailer, web browser, video/audio communication software, etc) encrypts but inserts the spy’s key alongside the legitimate users’ keys: this is essentially what the Australian government legislated for to spy on its own citizens.
But such malware, even when installed successfully and without your knowledge, has a problem of its own. How to “phone home” its information without being detected? If it makes an IP connection to a machine controlled by the attacker, that becomes obviously suspicious to a range of tools in a techie’s toolkit. Or for non-techie users, your antivirus software (unless that is itself a spy). So it’ll have a pretty limited lifetime before it gets busted. Alternatively, if it ‘phones home’ low-level data without IP information (that’ll look like random line noise to IP tools if they notice it at all), the network’s routers have nowhere to send it, and will just drop it.
This smuggling of illicit or compromised data to a clandestine listener is where a malicious router might conceivably play a role. But for that to happen, the attacker needs a primary agent: that spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. If anyone’s intelligence service has spyware from a hostile power, they have an altogether more serious problem than a router that’ll carry or even clone its data.
And who could install that spy? Answer: the producers of your hardware or software. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have software installed on most ‘puters and ‘phones. Some of that is P2P communications software like Microsoft’s skype or Facebook’s whatsapp, that should be prime vehicles for Aussie-style targeted espionage. If anyone is in a position to spy on us and could benefit from the cooperation of routers to remain undetected, it’s the government who could lean on those companies to do its bidding. I’m sure the companies aren’t happy about it, but as the Sky journalist said of Huawei, “it may also be a promise he is unable to keep, even if he wants to. The state comes before everything”.
China’s presence in any of those markets is a tiny fraction of what the US has. Could it be that the NSA made Huawei an offer they couldn’t refuse, but they did refuse and the US reaction is the penalty for that? It’s not totally far-fetched: there’s precedent with the US government’s treatment of Kaspersky.
And it would certainly be consistent with the US government’s high-pressure bullying of its allies. The alternative explanation to pure protectionism is that they don’t want us to install equipment without NSA spyware! The current disinformation campaign reminds me of nothing so much as Bush&Blair’s efforts to discredit Hans Blix’s team ahead of the Iraq invasion.
 I’m inclined to believe the Snowden leaks. But I’m well aware that anything that looks like Intelligence information might also be disinformation, and my inclination to believe it would then hint at disinformation targeted at people like me. So I’ll avoid rash assumptions one way or t’other. Snowden’s leaks support a conspiracy theory, but don’t prove it.