The latest report by a UK oversight body set up to evaluation Chinese networking giant Huawei’s approach to security has dialled up pressure on the company, giving a damning assessment of what it describes as “serious and systematic defects” in its software engineering and cyber security competence.
Although the report falls short of calling for an outright ban on Huawei equipment in domestic networks — an option U.S. president Trump continues dangling across the pond.
The report, prepared for the National Security Advisor of the UK by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board, also identifies new “significant technical issues” which it says lead to new risks for UK telecommunications networks using Huawei kit.
The HCSEC was set up by Huawei in 2010, under what the oversight board couches as “a set of arrangements with the UK government”, to provide information to state agencies on its products and strategies in order that security risks could be evaluated.
And last year, under pressure from UK security agencies concerned about technical deficiencies in its products, Huawei pledged to spend $2BN to try to address long-running concerns about its products in the country.
But the report throws doubt on its ability to address UK concerns — with the board writing that it has “not yet seen anything to give it confidence in Huawei’s capacity to successfully complete the elements of its transformation programme that it has proposed as a means of addressing these underlying defects”.
So it sounds like $2BN isn’t going to be nearly enough to fix Huawei’s security problem in just one European country.
The board also writes that it will require “sustained evidence” of better software engineering and cyber security “quality”, verified by HCSEC and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), if there’s to be any possibility of it reaching a different assessment of the company’s ability to reboot its security credentials.
While another damning assessment contained in the report is that Huawei has made “no material progress” on issues raised by last year’s report.
All the issues identified by the security evaluation process relate to “basic engineering competence and cyber security hygiene”, which the board notes gives rise to vulnerabilities capable of being exploited by “a range of actors”.
It adds that the NCSC does not believe the defects found are a result of Chinese state interference.
This year’s report is the fifth the oversight board has produced since it was established in 2014, and it comes at a time of acute scrutiny for Huawei, as 5G network rollouts are ramping up globally — pushing governments to address head on suspicions attached to the Chinese giant and consider whether to trust it with critical next-gen infrastructure.
“The Oversight Board advises that it will be difficult to appropriately risk-manage future products in the context of UK deployments, until the underlying defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security processes are remediated,” the report warns in one of several key conclusions that make very uncomfortable reading for Huawei.
“Overall, the Oversight Board can only provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated long-term,” it adds in summary.
Reached for its response to the report, a Huawei UK spokesperson sent us a statement in which it describes the $2BN earmarked for security improvements related to UK products as an “initial budget”.
The 2019 OB [oversight board] report details some concerns about Huawei’s software engineering capabilities. We understand these concerns and take them very seriously. The issues identified in the OB report provide vital input for the ongoing transformation of our software engineering capabilities. In November last year Huawei’s Board of Directors issued a resolution to carry out a companywide transformation programme aimed at enhancing our software engineering capabilities, with an initial budget of US$2BN.
A high-level plan for the programme has been developed and we will continue to work with UK operators and the NCSC during its implementation to meet the requirements created as cloud, digitization, and software-defined everything become more prevalent. To ensure the ongoing security of global telecom networks, the industry, regulators, and governments need to work together on higher common standards for cyber security assurance and evaluation.
Seeking to find something positive to salvage from the report’s savaging, Huawei suggests it demonstrates the continued effectiveness of the HCSEC as a structure to evaluate and mitigate security risk — flagging a description where the board writes that it’s “arguably the toughest and most rigorous in the world”, and which Huawei claims shows at least there hasn’t been any increase in vulnerability of UK networks since the last report.
Though the report does identify new issues that open up fresh problems — albeit the underlying issues were presumably there last year too, just laying undiscovered.
The board’s withering assessment certainly amps up the pressure on Huawei which has been aggressively battling U.S.-led suspicion of its kit — claiming in a telecoms conference speech last month that “the U.S. security accusation of our 5G has no evidence”, for instance.
At the same time it has been appealing for the industry to work together to come up with collective processes for evaluating the security and trustworthiness of network kit.
And earlier this month it opened another cyber security transparency center — this time at the heart of Europe in Brussels, where the company has been lobbying policymakers to help establish security standards to foster collective trust. Though there’s little doubt that’s a long game.
Meanwhile, critics of Huawei can now point to impatience rising in the U.K., despite comments by the head of the NCSC, Ciaran Martin, last month — who said then that security agencies believe the risk of using Huawei kit can be managed, suggesting the government won’t push for an outright ban.
The report does not literally overturn that view but it does blast out a very loud and alarming warning about the difficulty for UK operators to “appropriately” risk-manage what’s branded defective and vulnerable Huawei kit. Including flagging the risk of future products — which the board suggests will be increasingly complex to manage. All of which could well just push operators to seek alternatives.
On the mitigation front, the board writes that — “in extremis” — the NCSC could order Huawei to carry out specific fixes for equipment currently installed in the UK. Though it also warns that such a step would be difficult, and could for example require hardware replacement which may not mesh with operators “natural” asset management and upgrades cycles, emphasizing it does not offer a sustainable solution to the underlying technical issues.
“Given both the shortfalls in good software engineering and cyber security practice and the currently unknown trajectory of Huawei’s R&D processes through their announced transformation plan, it is highly likely that security risk management of products that are new to the UK or new major releases of software for products currently in the UK will be more difficult,” the board writes in a concluding section discussing the UK national security risk.
“On the basis of the work already carried out by HCSEC, the NCSC considers it highly likely that there would be new software engineering and cyber security issues in products HCSEC has not yet examined.”
It also describes the number and severity of vulnerabilities discovered, as well as architectural and build issues, by what the relatively small team in the HCSEC as “a particular concern”.
“If an attacker has knowledge of these vulnerabilities and sufficient access to exploit them, they may be able to affect the operation of the network, in some cases causing it to cease operating correctly,” it adds. “Other impacts could include being able to access user traffic or reconfiguration of the network elements.”
In another section on mitigating the risks of using Huawei kit, the report notes that architectural controls in place in most UK operators can limit the ability of attackers to exploit any vulnerable network elements not explicitly exposed to the public Internet — adding that such controls, combined with good opsec generally, will “remain critically important in the coming years to manage the residual risks caused by the engineering defects identified”.
In other highlights from the report the board does have some positive things to say, writing that an NCSC technical review of its capabilities showed improvements in 2018, while another independent audit of HCSEC’s ability to operate independently of Huawei HQ once again found “no high or medium priority findings”.
“The audit report identified one low-rated finding, relating to delivery of information and equipment within agreed Service Level Agreements. Ernst & Young concluded that there were no major concerns and the Oversight Board is satisfied that HCSEC is operating in line with the 2010 arrangements between HMG and the company,” it further notes.
Last month the European Commissioner said it was preparing to step in to ensure a “common approach” across the European Union where 5G network security is concerned.
And earlier this week it issued a set of recommendations for Member States that combine legislative and policy measures to assess 5G network security risks and help strengthen preventive measures.
Among the suggested operational measures it advises Member States to take is to complete a national risk assessment of 5G network infrastructures by the end of June 2019, and follow that by updating existing security requirements for network providers — including conditions for ensuring the security of public networks.
“These measures should include reinforced obligations on suppliers and operators to ensure the security of the networks,” it recommended. “The national risk assessments and measures should consider various risk factors, such as technical risks and risks linked to the behaviour of suppliers or operators, including those from third countries. National risk assessments will be a central element towards building a coordinated EU risk assessment.”
At an EU level the Commission said Member States should share information on network security, saying this “coordinated work should support Member States’ actions at national level and provide guidance to the Commission for possible further steps at EU level” — leaving the door open for further action.
While the EU’s executive body has not pushed for a pan-EU ban on any 5G vendors it did restate Member States’ right to exclude companies from their markets for national security reasons if they fail to comply with their own standards and legal framework.