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GCHQ spooks told: Break Huawei's grip on 'The Cell'

Chinese firm will still clear critical Brit networking gear, but team to be of UK's choosing

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British spooks have been ordered to keep a closer eye on the Huawei employees who inspect Blighty's critical networking hardware for vulns and backdoors.

From now on, GCHQ will take a "leading and directing role" in choosing the staff who work at the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

This base is known as The Cell and part of its role is to audit the security of the hardware which makes up Blighty's critical communications infrastructure. Its ultimate aim is to boost confidence among potential UK customers and stakeholders, such as telcos and politicians, by exposing vulnerabilities in kit used within the UK's Critical National Infrastructure.

The Cell's most important function is ensuring that equipment from foreign manufacturers cannot be clandestinely tapped into by foreign powers. With a Huawei-staffed cell inspecting Huawei gear, an obvious conflict of interest developed.

Kim Darroch, the UK's National Security Advisor, commissioned a report into the facility after report from the Intelligence and Security Committee found the HCSEC was "under Huawei’s control, rather than the Government’s".

Huawei has faced repeated accusations that it spies on behalf of the Chinese state.

Darroch's latest report (PDF) said: "In essence, the review concluded that HCSEC staff should remain part of Huawei, primarily for reasons of full access to equipment, code, and design teams. But after discussions with the Chairman of the ISC, the review also concluded that oversight arrangements should be enhanced, and GCHQ should have a leading and directing role in senior-level HCSEC appointments, in consultation with Huawei."

An oversight board staffed by GCHQ spooks, Whitehall civil servants and a a senior member of the National Security Secretariat will closely examine Huawei's activities.

The cell will be able to maintain "operational independence", but under the watchful gaze of GCHQ.

Currently, the intelligence agency has the power to veto appointments. It will now play a larger role in choosing senior staff to work at The Cell by chairing the selection panel.

Huawei's relationships with third-party providers are shrouded in secrecy due to a complicated web of non-disclosure agreements, the report continued. With this in mind, there is a clear need for Huawei staff to work at The Cell, despite the fact this "appeared to create conflicts of interest".

The report highlighted an "apparent shortage of individuals in the UK employment market with the necessary technical expertise and skills to fill all the available posts in HCSEC, GCHQ and the relevant parts of Whitehall", which made drafting in Huawei's workers a necessary evil.

It also warned the "fast moving nature of the telecommunications industry" required a constant reappraisal of government collaboration with the private sector.

In a statement, Huawei said: "We are pleased that the model of the UK Government, the telecom operators and Huawei working together in an open and transparent way has been recognised as the best approach for providing reassurance on the security of products and solutions deployed in the UK. We also support the review’s recommendations to optimise the management of the HCSEC and will continue to work with stakeholders to improve its capabilities.

"As we stated in our recent Cyber Security White Paper, Huawei believes it is only by working together internationally, as vendors, customers, policy and law makers, that the challenge of global cyber security can be met. Huawei shares the same goal as the UK Government and our customers in raising the standards of cyber security in the UK and ensuring that network technology benefits consumers."

In September, Huawei exec Professor Sanqi Li told us there was "no substance" to claims his firm was a threat to Blighty's national security. ®

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