The UK’s cyber security watchdog has warned the UK telecoms sector not to use network equipment or services from Chinese supplier ZTE as it would have a “long term negative effect on the security of the UK”. This is seen as the latest crackdown on telecoms equipment suppliers by governments concerned about the national security threat of using telecoms networks supplied by Chinese companies. The US government has long barred American telecoms companies from buying network equipment from Huawei and has considered a plan to build a state-funded 5G network to alleviate security concerns.
Ian Levy, the technical director of The National Cyber Security Centre, has sent a letter, seen by the Financial Times, to UK telecoms companies, the Chinese company and UK regulator Ofcom warning that “the use of ZTE equipment or services within existing telecommunications infrastructure would present risk to UK national security that could not be mitigated effectively or practicably”.
The NCSC letter states that ZTE is a Chinese state-owned business and that new Chinese laws have been introduced which allow the state to exert influence over companies and individuals, with “wide ranging powers of compulsion”.
“Mitigating the risk of external interference with equipment supplied by a particular vendor depends in significant part on telecommunications equipment being present from other vendors who are not subject to the same risk of external interference. The UK telecommunications network already contains a significant amount of equipment supplied by Huawei, also a Chinese equipment manufacturer. Adding in new equipment and services from another Chinese supplier would render our existing mitigations ineffective,” Mr Levy said.
Huawei, along with Ericsson and Nokia, supplies most of the telecoms equipment used in British mobile and broadband networks. Huawei equipment is monitored via a specialist cell, staffed by GCHQ, in Banbury to ensure no interference. The NCSC said it would be “impossible” to manage risks in view of the threat to the sector if ZTE equipment was deployed at scale. “The result would be an unacceptable national security risk to the UK telecoms infrastructure environment,” the letter said.