‘Not a single issue’: Huawei touts security record amid Ottawa’s 5G review

Huawei Technologies Canada Co. Ltd.’s chief security officer said its equipment has never failed Canada’s existing cybersecurity testing in a decade operating in the country, touting its record as Ottawa nears a decision on whether to follow the U.S. and ban the Chinese telecom giant’s gear from 5G wireless networks.

“We did not have a single issue, not once, over the last 10 years in Canada,” chief security officer Olivera Zatezalo said in an interview Tuesday.

Zatezalo added that Huawei has been working closely with the government and provided it with the information necessary to conduct its risk assessment for 5G networks and that she has “100 per cent confidence” in the government’s cybersecurity experts.

“We have to trust the Canadian government,” she said. “They have an understanding of what are the security controls and where they need to put them in order to have visibility in what’s going into your network.”

Zatezalo and other executives addressed security concerns at Huawei Canada’s Markham, Ont., headquarters at a media event showcasing technology such as virtual reality and 5G equipment. The event was held a week after Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government will announce the results of its security review — which could include a ban on Huawei equipment — before the federal election this fall.

The review could also include updates to the existing cybersecurity framework for 5G, which will connect millions of devices in an era of smart cities and self-driving cars.

The federal spy agency established the original framework in 2013 with the help of an industry group that included Zatezalo, who sat on the Canadian Security Telecommunication Advisory Committee in her previous role as director of security at Allstream.

As part of the security review program, the Communications Security Establishment set up third party labs to perform assurance testing for equipment designed for 3G and 4G networks, although the labs were “top secret” until last year.

We have to trust the Canadian government

Zatezalo, an engineer who joined Huawei in 2017, attributed the secrecy to the highly technical nature of the discussions about network design.

“If you start discussing complex cybersecurity issues with people that don’t have this background, the discussion is going to be based on fear, it’s not going to be based on facts,” she said.

Huawei insists it is just those kinds of fears that it is grappling with as some of Canada’s Five Eyes allies, led by the United States, call for a ban on its gear in next-generation networks, over concerns that they contain backdoors that the Chinese government could access to conduct espionage. Australia and New Zealand have also banned Huawei gear from 5G networks, although New Zealand is reconsidering.

The United Kingdom and Canada, on the other hand, have not yet banned Huawei but continue to test its equipment for faults at independent testing centres, like the one set up by CSE. In March, the U.K.’s oversight board criticized Huawei for “significant technical issues” that resulted in security flaws it didn’t take appropriate steps to fix. The lack of action created “significantly increased risk” for wireless operators, according to the board.

In response, Huawei said it will invest US$2 billion over five years to enhance its cybersecurity and software. The new code will be easier to compile, test and implement, Zatezalo said.

Zatezalo believes Huawei will get through its current public relations problem because Canada, which boasts some of the fastest wireless networks in the world, relies on its technology.

We will comply with the regulations

Carriers including Bell and Telus use Huawei equipment extensively in their radio access networks, but not in their core networks.

While there is “no hard line” that defines a network core, it typically refers to places where signalling information is aggregated to a central point, Huawei Canada’s chief technology officer, Robert Backhouse, said in an interview.

Huawei does not sell core equipment in Canada, but its peripheral equipment is used extensively. Canada was the first country in which Huawei deployed small cells, thousands of smaller units that can be used instead of larger towers, Backhouse said. The newer models could be upgraded for use in 5G networks, he said, but they aren’t compatible with other vendors’ equipment, a problem for carriers that use it if the government bans Huawei gear.

“We will provide equipment in Canada if the operators select us and if the government allows us. We will comply with the regulations,” Backhouse said.

Hauwei Canada president Eric Li also announced plans to release Huawei’s 5G compatible smartphone in Canada in late 2019 and to provide information and communications technology training to 1,000 Canadians by 2020. It also donated $100,000 to United Way Ottawa for flood relief.

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