RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
China's telecom giant Huawei has big ambitions when it comes to the Internet of the future. And the U.S. is trying to make things more difficult for the company to achieve them. The Trump administration is pressuring its allies to bar Huawei from their high-speed telecom networks. The administration believes Huawei represents a significant security threat because of its close ties to the Chinese government. Several Western nations, though, are pushing back, saying they can work around that risk. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Trump administration's warnings about Huawei coincides with the rollout of the next generation of wireless technology - 5G will be a more sophisticated, much faster system with the potential to revolutionize how we live and work. China-based Huawei, already the world's largest telecom equipment manufacturer, is one of the top developers of the 5G technology. That has the U.S. worried.
JAMES LEWIS: The biggest risk stems from China's 2017 national intelligence law.
NORTHAM: James Lewis is a telecom security specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
LEWIS: It says that every Chinese company must cooperate with Chinese intelligence services when they're asked. So if the ministry of state security came to Huawei and said, help us out, they would have to say yes.
NORTHAM: Lewis says the nature of the new 5G leaves networks more vulnerable to cyberattacks or espionage by Chinese security services. Huawei has denied links to the Chinese government. And the U.S. has never provided any conclusive evidence that Huawei has engaged in spying, says Lewis.
LEWIS: It's not that Huawei has been caught with its hands in the cookie jar. It's that they could. And there's little that people could do to stop them if they wanted to.
NORTHAM: The Trump administration has effectively banned U.S. government agencies and contractors from using technology from Huawei. The White House is pushing its allies to do the same. Australia has already blocked Huawei from its 5G networks. It's more of a challenge in Europe, where Huawei's network is well-established.
PHILIPPE LE CORRE: When you have many operators doing mobile telephone business, you know, they need cheap equipment and also good quality ones. And Huawei's not bad, really.
NORTHAM: Philippe Le Corre is a specialist on Chinese influence in Europe at the Harvard Kennedy School. He says it would be expensive to dismantle Huawei's existing networks.
LE CORRE: Some of these companies, really, in Europe are now saying that, you know, they don't have many options and that Huawei's already there and, perhaps, you know, we should give it a try and maybe monitor what they're doing.
NORTHAM: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a five-nation swing through Europe earlier this month warning the relationship with the U.S. could suffer if those countries use Huawei equipment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE POMPEO: That is, if that equipment is co-located in places where we have important American systems, it makes more difficult for us to partner alongside them.
NORTHAM: Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says even though European security services understand the risk, there's pushback against the U.S.
ADAM SEGAL: It's not as if the Trump administration is in a particularly good position of convincing its friends to do things that they have other reasons not to go along with.
NORTHAM: Segal says even the U.K.'s National Cyber Security Center, part of the country's intelligence service, concluded the risk from Huawei could be reduced with tight controls and oversight.
SEGAL: They're arguing that already there's a broad set of risks with cybersecurity with these new 5G networks. You're never going to eliminate the risk. You have to decide which ones you think you can live with. So it's not a crazy argument. I mean, from a risk-mitigation perspective, it may make sense.
NORTHAM: The U.K., Germany and Canada are due to make a final decision about Huawei later this spring. Jackie Northam, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.