As Canada prepares to announce its 5G network policy, what will it do about Huawei?

As the liberal government prepares to roll out its policy on next-generation mobile networks, global security experts say all signs point to excluding Chinese vendor Huawei Technologies from the long-awaited scheme.

The development of fifth generation networks, or 5G, will give people faster connections over the Internet and provide massive data capacity to meet the insatiable demand as more and more things are connected to the Internet and innovations such as virtual reality, immersive games and autonomous vehicles.

Opposition conservatives have long lobbied liberals to deny Huawei any role in building the country’s 5G infrastructure, saying it would allow Beijing to spy on Canadians more easily.

Some claim that Huawei’s involvement could give it access to a range 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 personal information.

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou waves off a plane after arriving at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong Province on September 25. Canada arrested Meng in December 2018, leading to years of growing tension with China. (Jin Liuang/Xinhua via The Associated Press)

These concerns stem from the fact that China’s National Intelligence Law stipulates that Chinese organizations and citizens must support, assist, and cooperate with the work of the state’s intelligence.

Huawei insists that it is an independent company and is not involved in spying on anyone, including Beijing.

We sell in 180 countries around the world,” said Alikhan Felshi, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Huawei Canada. “We have to comply with the laws of each of those countries. And if we break the trust, we will find ourselves only selling in one country.”

Relationship with allies mind

Regardless of whether or not Huawei poses a real security risk, these concerns have given rise to a general notion that countries cannot afford to gamble on a telecommunications company enthusiastically backed by Beijing, said Wesley Wark, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the senior officials. Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

“The company is cognitively allied too closely with the Chinese system to allow Western countries to do anything else,” Wark said. And they have alternatives.

Filshi said Huawei Canada hopes – and expects – that any decision the federal government makes on 5G policy will be “based on technology, not politics.”

He also emphasized that most of Huawei’s 1,600 employees in Canada are involved in research and development as well as marketing of products other than network equipment to telecom operators.

“The truth is we have a diversified business in Canada,” Filshi said. “That’s why we sell smartphones in Canada, we sell earphones, we sell laptops.”

While there has been much focus on Huawei’s question, the government’s review of 5G networks is a broader strategic look at how the initial technology could stimulate the Canadian economy.

“However, in order to take advantage of this opportunity for economic growth through 5G, the safety and security of the technology must be ensured,” according to briefing notes prepared earlier this year for Bill Blair, then Minister of Public Safety.

“Incidents resulting from exploits by malicious actors will be more difficult to protect, and could have a broader impact than in previous generations of wireless technology.”

US President Joe Biden speaks during an event at the UN’s COP26 Climate Summit, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. Canada arrested Meng at the request of the United States. (Evan Fauci/The Associated Press)

Whether by chance or federal design, decisions made months or even years ago in foreign cabinet meetings and corporate boards are likely to profoundly shape the Canadian 5G rollout.

Three of Canada’s Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners – the US, Britain and Australia – have taken decisive steps to limit the use of Huawei equipment in their countries’ 5G networks.

The federal government acknowledges that the United States has strongly encouraged countries to tread carefully in 5G security considerations, noting that a US delegation visited Canada in March 2020 to discuss the issue with various ministers and government officials.

Finn Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said the US had made it clear that Canada had to “join” if it wanted to remain part of the club.

“It’s the security premium you pay, not just nationwide, but for being a partner in premium security alliances like Five Eyes. There’s no free lunch, and you can’t eat it both ways,” Hampson said.

“That’s the big computation we’re facing now. And I think it’s pretty clear which direction the government is going to jump in.”

The legacy of the arrest of two Michaels

Canada’s 5G policy announcement has effectively been delayed for the past three years due to the tense geopolitical drama that has occurred between Ottawa and Beijing.

Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top Huawei executive, in December 2018 at the request of the United States, where she was wanted over allegations of violating sanctions against Iran.

The move apparently angered Beijing, and two Canadians working in China – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – were arrested soon after on charges of endangering national security, a move widely seen as retaliation by Ottawa.

The United States recently reached a deferred prosecution agreement in Meng’s case, allowing for her release, and Beijing allowing the two Michaels, as they became known, to return to Canada.

Michael Kovrig hugs his (estranged) wife, Vina Njibula, right, after arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on September 25. Canadians Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China on espionage charges hours after Meng’s arrest, a move widely interpreted as retaliation. (Frank Jean/The Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, major Canadian telecoms companies have been able to deal with 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 example, didn’t have much to say about the upcoming federal announcement. “We have no comment other than to note that we are pleased with the 5G network providers Ericsson and Nokia,” spokeswoman Caroline Odette said.

Huawei notes that the company’s involvement with existing mobile networks in Canada 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 the Canadian communications network today,” Filshi said.

However, if Canada bans the company from participating in 5G, it will raise questions about the fate of old Huawei equipment in pre-installed networks.

The government notes that the Canadian Security Review Program has been in place since 2013 to address cybersecurity risks.

The Communications Security Corporation, Canada’s electronic espionage agency, works with telecom companies and equipment vendors to exclude certain equipment from sensitive areas of Canadian networks and to ensure mandatory testing of equipment before it is used in less vulnerable systems.

The government says the knowledge developed through the program will be important in assessing cyber threats and emerging technology risks.

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