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Germany warns of 5G attacks by 'nation states' in veiled criticism of Beijing and Huawei

Stuart Lau in Brussels

Germany, in what European diplomats on Thursday called veiled criticism of Beijing and Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, warned of cybersecurity attacks that could be launched by "nation states or nation state-backed actors" on future 5G networks within the European Union.

The German government made those comments in a national risk assessment exercise conducted by the European Commission, spurred by growing public concern over the potential for attacks on networks, devices, programmes and data linked to superfast 5G, or fifth-generation, data transmission.

"It's obvious the German government is referring to Huawei and China, given that the company is the leading player in 5G and the biggest concern for Europe," a European diplomatic source told the South China Morning Post.

"It will be interesting to see what other EU member states will say in their submissions."

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is to prepare a coordinated EU-wide evaluation of the potential risks associated with 5G networks by October 3.

The commission will propose measures for addressing the risks identified during the assessment process by year's end.

Huawei has been at the centre of concerns raised by intelligence officials in Washington, London and Canberra that telecommunications infrastructure can be used by foreign governments to obtain private data.

US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have lobbied governments worldwide for restrictions on the deployment of the company's systems.

Huawei, the world's largest telecoms equipment maker, has been appealing to EU member states to oppose the US effort to block it from supplying EU countries with 5G mobile network hardware and software.

The US, in turn, has threatened to cut off intelligence-sharing with countries that use the controversial Chinese company's products.

But some European countries have found it hard to resist the appeal of Huawei's lower costs and technological superiority over European rivals Nokia and Ericsson.

As well, Huawei already has a foothold in the European market, where its hardware can be found in many 4G networks.

The EU will finish collecting risk assessments from the 28 member states on October 3.

The German submission " containing the comments seen as criticism of Huawei " is to be released by the EU this week, under the bloc's access-to-information rules.

Without referring to any company or country, the German assessment lists six areas of 5G vulnerability.

US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have lobbied governments worldwide for restrictions on the deployment of Huawei's systems. Photo: Reuters alt=US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have lobbied governments worldwide for restrictions on the deployment of Huawei's systems. Photo: Reuters

The list includes a "large-scale outage or significant disturbance of telecommunications services by nation states or nation state-backed actors exploiting undocumented functions or attacking interdependent critical infrastructures", especially power supplies.

Another risk it cited was "espionage of data initiated by nation states or nation state-backed actors".

Europe's largest economy also warned that the increased construction of systems for electronic payments, logistical processes and transport on top of 5G networks raised the potential for attacks to have national impact and "bring daily life to a halt".

"We expect that attacks, especially by hacker groups and nation states, will challenge us with great diversity and complexity," the German submission said.

As reported by Politico on Thursday, Huawei has been temporarily suspended from the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams (FIRST), an organisation that shares threat intelligence in security incidents among more than 400 member companies in Europe, the Americas, Asia and elsewhere.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, launches the Mate 30 smartphone range at the Convention Centre in Munich, Germany, on Thursday. Photo: Reuters alt=Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, launches the Mate 30 smartphone range at the Convention Centre in Munich, Germany, on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Group members include incident response teams from Amazon, Google and Alibaba, as well as governmental cybersecurity centres. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

An internal email from the organisation's chairman, Serge Droz, seen by Politico, said its board earlier this month "took the unusual step of suspending the membership of Huawei" because of recent changes to export rules by the US Bureau of Industry and Security.

Droz added it was "with great disappointment" that FIRST decided to suspend Huawei, calling it a temporary move to protect the organisation and its members.

A Huawei spokesman told Politico the company read the statement from FIRST as an endorsement of the principle of cooperation.

"Going back to the walled city-states of the Middle Age in the era of 5G is neither realistic nor desirable," the spokesman was quoted.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.