Senior officials at GCHQ and the NSA have sought to play down talk of a rift in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance over the Chinese tech giant Huawei.
It emerged on Wednesday that Theresa May has resisted American pressure to issue an outright ban on the Chinese tech giant’s telecoms equipment, instead choosing to prevent the firm from operating in the core of the UK’s 5G network.
The decision is likely to aggravate Washington, which has conducted a ferocious lobbying campaign against Huawei in recent months. US officials claim the company is essentially an arm of the Chinese state and could be used to spy on citizens and businesses at Beijing’s behest (allegations Huawei firmly denies).
The leaks emerged as representatives of the Five Eyes alliance, which includes the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were preparing to meet publicly on British soil for the first time.
Speaking on stage at the government’s CyberUK conference in Glasgow on Wednesday, Ciaran Martin – the head of the National Cyber Security Centre, a part of GCHQ – said critical infrastructure protection was “a core priority”. “It includes all sorts of systems and, as with everything in the Five Eyes, there is much more that unites us than divides us.”
Rob Joyce, a senior cyber security advisor to the US National Security Agency (NSA), said the “Five Eyes” alliance was united in banning Huawei from the most sensitive networks, but that “the realities of where do you define sensitive networks” remained a matter of “discussion” between nations.
Theresa May will be hoping that the compromise will balance the competing demands of the US and China, and also those of the UK’s telecom operators and intelligence agencies.
Some operators had warned that an outright ban on Huawei in the 5G roll out would have pushed back the launch of the service by at least a year in the UK as they would have been forced to rebuild the existing networks over which it will run.
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The cabinet is expected to make a formal announcement next week. A government spokesperson said: “National Security Council discussions are confidential. Decisions from those meetings are made and announced at the appropriate time through the established processes.
“The security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance. As part of our plans to provide world class digital connectivity, including 5G, we have conducted an evidence based review of the supply chain to ensure a diverse and secure supply base, now and into the future. This is a thorough review into a complex area and will report with its conclusions in due course.”