The United States' top cyber diplomat just offered an unusually blunt warning to other nations: Allowing Huawei and other Chinese companies into their next-generation telecommunications networks would allow Beijing to expand its surveillance state around much of the globe.
The argument from Rob Strayer, the State Department's top cyber official, was the most elaborate public case a U.S. official has made against Huawei's inclusion in 5G networks. It follows a monthslong pressure campaign by U.S. officials to ban the Chinese telecom giant from 5G in Canada, Britain, Europe and elsewhere.
"A country that uses data in the way China has – to surveil its citizens, to set up credit scores and to imprison more than 1 million people for their ethnic and religious background – should give us pause about the way that country might use data in the future," Strayer said Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "It would be naive to think that country, [given] the influence it has over its companies, would act in ways that would treat our citizens better than it treats its own citizens."
The Trump administration is considering an executive order that would effectively allow it to ban Huawei and other Chinese companies from U.S. telecom systems, but even that wouldn't fully protect U.S. information because data moves so easily across national borders. Even sensitive U.S. government information would remain vulnerable if officials were communicating with allies who allowed Huawei on their 5G networks, Strayer said.
"There's so much data flowing around the world, it's impossible to just isolate one country's networks and think: 'That's OK, I'm fine,'" he said.
The transition to 5G, which is in its earliest stages, will mark a massive development in mobile technology. It will offer far faster download speeds and the ability to run billions more devices on mobile networks, including smart devices such as autonomous vehicles and powerful artificial intelligence systems. While it will be five or more years before the system is fully operational, a lot of the contracts to create its basic building blocks will be negotiated this year.
That exponential increase in connectivity, however, also will "dramatically increase the networks' threat vectors and attack surfaces," said Michael Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
China could leverage Huawei's position in 5G networks to steal "trillions" of dollars of intellectual property, Strayer noted, or to implant malware on adversaries' networks. It could even shut down parts of those networks amid geopolitical conflicts. Strayer's concerns would apply to any Chinese company, he noted, though Huawei is, by far, the most prominent example.
The move against Huawei isn't limited to 5G developments.
Congress banned the company from U.S. government networks last year amid fears it would be used as a Chinese government spying tool and the Federal Communications Commission has proposed a rule that would allow it to ban the company from smaller networks that accept federal grants, where the company has its strongest foothold.
The Justice Department also indicted Huawei's chief financial officer and two affiliates in January, alleging a host of crimes, including stealing robotics technology from T-Mobile and violating sanctions against Iran.
But the U.S. international lobbying campaign against Huawei goes a step further, seeking to restrict China from playing a key role in an entire generation of digital development. Its success or failure could determine the fate of internet security for years, Strayer said.
"We're talking to partners around the world about this as they upgrade to 5G. We're raising it at the highest diplomatic levels," Strayer said. "The generational nature of 5G, the transformational nature of it means there will be a whole generation of lock-in."