New cyber attack fears over the Chinese ‘Red Army lab’ being used for BT broadband tests
A controversial Chinese telecoms company with close links to the Red Army is developing equipment to be used in millions of British homes. The new technology is to be rolled out as part of BT’s £2.5 billion plan for super-fast broadband to reach two-thirds of UK homes and offices by 2015. But the testing of internet and telecoms equipment in Chinese laboratories 7,000 miles away has raised security fears over the sharing of technology between Britain and China. Telecoms giant Huawei, which has a turnover of £17 billion and employs 110,000 staff around the world, has strong ties to the Chinese military which security experts warn could make Britain vulnerable to cyber attack.
Dr Kim Howells, the former chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, described the shared operation between BT and Huawei as ‘very worrying’. He said: ‘I would urge caution here because I know the intelligence agencies are very wary about sharing technology with the Chinese. ‘The truth is that no matter how a Chinese company presents itself it is never really separate from the state or free from Chinese government diktats. ‘It gives the Chinese a key component at the heart of British communications.’
An investigation by The Mail on Sunday has located the testing centre at the headquarters of Huawei in the city of Shenzhen, province of Guandong. Here, Chinese technicians have built exact copies of the computers and telecoms systems used by BT to serve its customers in the UK.
Outside the giant white buildings, scores of young men, many clad in black and others in paramilitary uniforms, practise their martial arts and protect the premises.
The Mail on Sunday went behind the 10ft steel fences and deep inside the testing centre where signs on the wall of a unit in the research and development section display BT logos on diagrams headed ‘24 hour mirror test center’ and ‘Mirror test network center’.
Huawei first developed links with the UK in 2000 when it started selling software to British telecom companies. In recent years its executives have worked hard to get close to the British Establishment and last week one of its senior executives came to the aid of Prince Andrew by publicly endorsing his work as the UK trade ambassador. Business Secretary Vince Cable backed Huawei’s bid to build a mobile phone network on the London Underground in time for next year’s Olympics.
Efforts to overcome suspicions of Huawei’s links to the Chinese military have been less successful in America where further deals have been rebuffed.
Security experts say that by granting China access to shared technologies, the UK is vulnerable to cyber attacks and spying. Huawei’s head is Ren Zhengfei, a former director of the telecoms research arm of China’s three-million-strong People’s Liberation Army. As well as a former Chinese officer who served during the Cultural Revolution, Zhengfei is a high-ranking Communist Party member with connections to China’s leadership – something that raised concerns when he tried unsuccessfully to launch telecoms ventures in both the US and India.
In just 20 years Huawei has become one of the world’s largest telecoms businesses by deploying its army of engineers to develop the equipment that knits together the internet, telephone systems and computer databases. BT signed a multi-million pound deal in 2005 to buy key parts of its new communications network from Huawei and inside the BT test centre in Shenzhen there is plenty of evidence to show how closely the two are working. Dr Howells said: ‘When I was on the Intelligence and Security Committee it was obvious that the most serious probing going into British security networks and commercial networks was coming from China. I don’t believe that has changed.’
Massimo Cotrozzi, a leading cyber security expert with KCS, one of Britain’s biggest intelligence and security companies and previously a cyber security investigator with the Italian police, warned that Huawei’s deep access to BT systems raised the possibility of selective re-routing of more sensitive communications. He said: ‘I feel that the biggest concern here should not be the security of Huawei’s infrastructure, but rather the opportunity to have a foreign country’s provider strongly linked to to the Chinese army.’ David Clemente, a cyber security expert with independent analysis centre Chatham House, said that the extensive relationship between the two companies did raise concerns but showed that it was impossible to eliminate security risks in a commercial world. He went on: ‘It’s a concern for any government but costs will drive so many of these arrangements. ‘The only way to be sure is if BT was to manufacture and install all the hardware and all the software itself.’ To help counter security fears Huawei set up a cyber security evaluation centre in Banbury, Oxfordshire, which works with GCHQ, the Government’s secret listening centre. A GCHQ spokesman confirmed the centre would ‘continue to work in collaboration with Huawei to minimise any risks in relation to Huawei telecoms products’. ‘The only way to be sure is if BT was to manufacture and install all the hardware and all the software itself’. A spokesman for BT said: ‘The lab in Shenzhen is simply used for testing purposes and mirrors the environment that BT will use the equipment in the UK. It is not connected to any live UK network and so any such allegation is wrong.’ He added: ‘The lab is managed strictly to adhere to security rules. It is not connected to BT’s live network, BT’s test networks or any other UK networks. ‘No sensitive data from the UK is used in the lab and no live data from the UK can be used in the lab. ‘Our relationship with Huawei is managed strictly in accordance with UK laws and security best practice.’ A Huawei spokeswoman said: ‘We undertake robust testing procedures on all our equipment to ensure we meet top standards of quality and security. ‘Huawei has a proven track record of providing secure products and solutions to 45 of the top 50 telecommunications operators globally, and there has been no breach of security using Huawei’s equipment.’
SIMON PARRY and ROBERT VERKAIK Daily Mail March 14, 2011