It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with GCHQ, but ex GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan’s recent comments in an interview with the BBC Today programme struck a chord.
Hannigan headed GCHQ from April 2014 until his resignation for family reasons last year. Whilst in post he pushed for greater transparency at the SIGINT agency. He was responsible for setting up the National Cyber Security Centre in 2017. And in 2016 he argued publicly in favour of strong encryption and against the idea of “back doors” in crypto software. So, arguably, Hannigan is more liberal and open than is common in GCHQ. Certainly his approach was very different to that of his predecessors Iain Lobban or David Pepper.
In his Today interview, Hannigan said of Facebook:
“This isn’t a kind of fluffy charity providing free services. It’s is a very hard-headed international business and these big tech companies are essentially the world’s biggest global advertisers, that’s where they make their billions.
“So in return for the service that you find useful they take your data… and squeeze every drop of profit out of it.”
Asked if Facebook was a threat to democracy, Hannigan said:
“Potentially yes. I think it is if it isn’t controlled and regulated.
“But these big companies, particularly where there are monopolies, can’t frankly reform themselves. It will have to come from outside.”
So he is arguing for greater democratic control of the behemoth which is Facebook (and by extrapolation, other similar companies such as Google). That may put him at odds with many in the US.
More interestingly though, Hannigan also went on to comment on the Chinese Telecoms giant Huawei.
Huawei has been in the news a lot recently. Last week (7 December) Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of its founder, was detained at Vancouver airport on a US extradition request. In November, New Zealand reported that it had decided to follow the lead of the US and Australia in barring Huawei from involvement in its 5G networks. Canada is reportedly carrying out a security review of Huawei telecoms equipment, and in the UK, BT has said that it will be removing Huawei kit from the core of its 5G network. All these decisions are said to flow from fears that China may be using Huawei as a proxy so it can spy on rival nations.
Hannigan had this to say about Huawei:
“My worry is there is a sort of hysteria growing at the moment about Chinese technology in general, and Huawei in particular, which is driven by all sorts of things but not by understanding the technology or the possible threat. And we do need a calmer and more dispassionate approach here.”
He went on to say “no malicious backdoors” had been found in Huawei’s systems, although there were concerns about the firm’s approach to cyber security and engineering.
“The idea… that we can cut ourselves off from all Chinese technology in the future, which is not just going to be the cheapest – which it has been in the past – but in many areas the best, is frankly crazy.”
Indeed. It is worth remembering that in 2005 BT selected Huawei as a preferred supplier for equipment for its 21CN network – much to the chagrin of the obvious competitors. Marconi never recovered from the loss of sales to BT who took the decision on the entirely hard headed basis of best value for money (i.e. cost).
At the time of the decision by BT to go with Huawei there were lots of rumblings about “security concerns”. Those rumblings have never gone away and the UK is still under pressure from the US to ditch Huawei. But it could be argued that the biggest reason for this is actually a protectionist desire by the US to see its main communications infrastructure companies (Cisco, Juniper et al) getting business rather than the newcomers from China.
And who is to say that equipment from those US companies poses any less of a security threat than that from Huawei? I’d guess that the NSA would much prefer to see US equipment deployed across the world’s Telcoms Companies – for fairly obvious reasons – the very same reasons which are adduced to Huawei.