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In race for 5G, European companies hope to profit from security doubts over Chinese giant Huawei

7 min read

HELSINKI As the Trump administration puts pressure on Chinese telecom giant Huawei to block its dominance in developing future 5G networks, small European competitors are pitching themselves as more secure alternatives.

Nokia, the Finnish telecommunications company that once had a lion’s share of the global cellphone market, now wants to compete on the basis of “security,” Niklas Lindroos, who heads health, safety, security and environment for mobile networks at Nokia, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Nokia has its headquarters in a lush region a short distance northwest of Helsinki, in Espoo, Finland’s scientific and digital innovation hub. Nokia started in the 19th century selling paper, pulp and rubber, but it transformed itself to sell personal computers and mobile phones, and now its focus is on networks.

Huawei emerged in recent years seemingly from nowhere, supported by massive government subsidies, a network of research and development facilities, and a footprint in rural and developing areas around the world. Nokia and Ericsson of Sweden, once giants in the field, began to lag behind in development and competitive pricing. However, as Washington has Huawei in its cross hairs, the small European companies see an opportunity.

Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri in the past has boosted Nokia’s more secure products and hinted Huawei’s failure would be Nokia’s ultimate gain. Those bets appear to be paying off. On May 29, Nokia and Ericsson won a major 5G contract with Japanese electronics conglomerate SoftBank Corp., a major blow to Huawei.

Lindroos and Karol Mattila, Nokia’s head of government relations for Finland, gave a straightforward pitch during an interview with Yahoo News on Nokia’s campus in Espoo just days earlier: If governments have a history of being spied on, or are considering using their 5G networks for anything more sensitive than consumer communications, Nokia’s security should be a big selling point, despite Huawei’s massive resources and lower prices.

“5G will be a critical infrastructure under all the other critical infrastructure, be it finance, transport, health care, you know, practically everything” said Mattila.

The Huawei logo during a DigitALL lunch talk in Brussels in May. (Photo: Virginia Mayo/AP)
The Huawei logo during a DigitALL lunch talk in Brussels in May. (Photo: Virginia Mayo/AP)

According to Lindroos, Nokia is actively involved in conversations about developing the official standards for 5G, which are expected to be completed by 2020, though Huawei has also sent representatives to participate in those discussions. Multiple international bodies are working on developing standards, including the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body in Geneva, the Internet Engineering Task Force, based in the U.S., and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, which meets in different locations around the world.

Nokia also advertises a small, trusted supply chain, meaning it makes the most of its products itself or purchases hardware or software from only a few trusted vendors. In the U.S., major defense contractors are increasingly concerned about the tens of thousands of companies that manufacture components of major technology — a security issue recently raised by the U.S. intelligence community. Communications networks are subject to similar concerns.

The Finnish telecom company is also one of the few in the telecom industry to have signed onto the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, a private sector pledge to promote the safety of customers online first and foremost. In 2013, news broke that Nokia would be working with the University of Bristol to try to develop quantum cryptography for mobile phones to further protect communications, though it is unclear how far those efforts have gone, as quantum computing science remains a nascent field.

Time will tell whether Nokia’s promises are real and make a difference in its effort to reclaim markets that Huawei has recently dominated. The competitors, along with Ericsson, are some of the only companies that manufacture the basic components, such as radios, switches, chips and routers, necessary to build up 5G networks .

“Ultimately, it’s for the country” looking to purchase 5G networks “to decide, not for Nokia,” said Lindroos. Different countries need to think about how they will use 5G, whether that’s for commercial purposes or sensitive government networks, and consider “past experiences” with foreign espionage and theft, Lindroos said. “Of course,” he continued, “there’s a degree of politics as well in that decision making.”

The politics are one of the reasons that many smaller European nations have declined to take a firm stance against Huawei, despite repeated urging from the Trump administration.

The Nokia executives never explicitly referenced Huawei, but European officials in Northern and Eastern Europe told Yahoo News that Donald Trump’s trade war with China had to some extent skewed the conversation about 5G security and the threat posed by China.

“America is dropping a lot of verbal bombs,” said Dennis Broeders, a senior fellow at The Hague Program for Cyber Norms at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. “It makes a lot of people in Europe recoil.”

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a meeting with China's Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office of the White House in April. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a meeting with China’s Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office of the White House in April. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Whereas the United States has banned Huawei outright, European national security officials suggested they recognized the potential threat, but might wait out the geopolitical storm before taking a firm stance. “It seems like we have a united Europe, but we don’t,” said one former senior Dutch intelligence official, referring to the debate over Huawei.

Germany’s telecommunications regulator has refused to block Huawei. The United Kingdom has demanded source code access and technical compliance to manage the risk posed by foreign providers like Huawei. Some countries are testing partial bans, or leaving it up to the telecoms to decide. Skeptical politicians and industry experts have demanded concrete evidence that Huawei has done anything wrong.

Now that might be at hand. The Dutch intelligence agency is probing whether or not Huawei created a “backdoor” in a major Dutch telecom firm’s network, according to Dutch journalist Huib Modderkolk for news outlet de Volkskrant.

In April, Dutch telecom KPN banned Huawei from the “core” of its 5G networks, though says it will still use its radios. The government of Holland is expected to issue a formal letter on its position on Huawei within weeks, multiple Dutch sources said.

Technical compliance is not the only factor being considered.

When asked about the security threat posed by Huawei, Estonia’s top cybersecurity diplomat, Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar, told Yahoo News that human rights — such as China’s policy of confining the Uighur religious minority in internment camps — should also be considered.

“Huawei is not only a supply chain issue. It’s a very worrying trend in China of disregarding the international rule of law and human rights. Estonia and Iceland are considered some of the freest countries when it comes to internet freedom, while China is at the other end. If we allow these governments to provide this technology, what does that mean for the future when everything will be connected?”

Swedish defense minister Peter Hultqvist in an interview on cybersecurity and 5G emphasized the importance of “maintaining control” over critical infrastructure. “It’s always important to have security around important properties,” he told Yahoo News. He did not comment specifically on the U.S. call for a Huawei ban.

Sweden is home to Huawei’s other top competitor, Ericsson, the world’s third- largest telecom equipment company, which would also benefit from a Huawei ban in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe.

In the Stockholm airport, advertisements for Ericsson greet passengers upon arrival. Ericsson directly competes with Nokia, although Mattila and Lindroos noted the two sometimes share information about common threats facing the industry. Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm has stressed the importance of keeping Europe, “the original leader in mobility,” competitive in 5G, focusing more on speed and innovation and a return to European dominance, rather than on security concerns over Huawei. Ekholm has even announced that Ericsson aims to have 5G contracts in China.

The Ericsson world headquarters building in Kista, Sweden. (Photo: Rob Schoenbaum/Zuma Press)
The Ericsson world headquarters building in Kista, Sweden. (Photo: Rob Schoenbaum/Zuma Press)

For Mattila, who works in government relations for Nokia, this could be the moment that security and “digital sovereignty” — essentially, a nation’s ability to control its own communications networks — become a central concern of European governments. It is a “great thing” that governments “have woken up to this, regardless of the motives or the timing,” he told Yahoo News.

Although Nokia has 42 commercial deals for 5G, Huawei’s technology, subsidized by the Chinese government, is often the most affordable and makes the best option for rural and developing regions. It may come down to the kind of security countries or localities can afford, further politicizing the issue. One industry source noted that companies may find it difficult to monetize security and freedom from foreign interference if they come at a higher price.

Lindroos, who works on the security of mobile networks for Nokia, told Yahoo News that cooperation with government bodies or “three-letter agencies,” hinting at the U.S. intelligence community, is sometimes useful for security. However, he remains wary of organizations that don’t share information necessary for protecting consumers. When asked whether government agencies have improved in their efforts to be transparent, particularly following the leak of thousands of documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, both Lindroos and Mattila expressed skepticism.

For the private sector, the question may not be whether Huawei can be trusted despite its connections to the Chinese government, but whether any company close to government agencies can be trusted. Security agencies sometimes keep flaws in security products secret “because they were thinking about how it could be utilized in an adversarial network,” Lindroos said.

Lindroos was also skeptical of the U.K.’s demand that Huawei share its source code with British officials for security reviews, not because Huawei could evade detection, as several other European officials noted, but because the U.K. and other actors could take advantage of that opportunity too.

“There’s always the question of, is that information being used as well to enable potential attacks and weaponize any found vulnerabilities,” said Lindroos.

Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich BöllFoundation North America.

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