NOEL TURNBULL. Why not Huawei Jose?

Australia has, as usual, meekly followed suit to ban Huawei from a potential 5G network at the behest of the United States.

The British are being a bit more independent and arguing that the problem can be managed – if there is a problem – and is at risk of angering the other Five Eyes nations which merrily spy on people around the world.

The pointlessness of the debate, like many debates in Australia where national security is concerned, overlooks some important things exposed in a Foreign Affairs paper by Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist.

First, and foremost, the Chinese need to get in the queue behind all the others spying on us. The Australian and US Government security establishments are the primary immediate problem as they hoover up data (however much George Brandis demonstrated that he didn’t know what metadata let alone hoovering was when he was Attorney General) including data they vowed they would not gather.

Schneier puts this in context: “Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans, and Russians have been breaking into US networks for years without having any control over the hardware, the software, or the companies that produce the devices. (And the US National Security Agency, or NSA, has been breaking into foreign networks for years without having to coerce companies into deliberately adding backdoors.) Nothing in 5G prevents these activities from continuing, even increasing, in the future.”

Moreover, as Schneier says, “…. keeping untrusted companies like Huawei out of Western infrastructure isn’t enough to secure 5G. Neither is banning Chinese microchips, software, or programmers. Security vulnerabilities in the standards – the protocols and software for 5G – ensure that vulnerabilities will remain, regardless of who provides the hardware and software. These insecurities are a result of market forces that prioritize costs over security and of governments, including the United States, that want to preserve the option of surveillance in 5G networks.”

Now the answer of the Australian-US running dogs is that the US is our friend and wouldn’t do anything nasty – so much for the Whitlam Dismissal and the reality of Brian Toohey’s ongoing exposes on the surveillance which makes them and our own Government the greatest threat to Australians’ privacy and security. His latest, Secrets, focusses on the creation of the Australian security state; the databases being built on digital fingerprints and facial recognition; and, our dependence on the US in defence matters.

Second, Huawei technology is embedded in 4G technology in many places around the world and to move to using some other technology could require costly dismantling of the Huawei part of any 4G network which would be included in 5G. Schneier says: “There’s so much backward compatibility built into the 5G network that older vulnerabilities remain. 5G is an evolution of the decade-old 4G network, and most networks will mix generations. Without the ability to do a clean break from 4G to 5G, it will simply be impossible to improve security in some areas. Attackers may be able to force 5G systems to use more vulnerable 4G protocols, for example, and 5G networks will inherit existing problems.”

Third, the US is probably motivated by the fact that they have nothing as sophisticated, nor as cost effective, as Huawei 5G technology. The latter wouldn’t be a problem if some US tech titans could make a mint out of it but the US is playing catch up.

Fourth, whatever happens with 5G it is inevitable that, as with NBN, our Government will end up supporting a system which is technologically inferior and more expensive. The author was once trapped at a function at a Melbourne club (it was a guest not a member) quietly listening to two of Australia’s leading right wing commentators – one of whom was actually a professor.

The professor was scoffing at the suggestion that the proposed NBN would be of any use at all and made ridiculously false statements about NBN proponents’ claims – joking that it seemed it would make remote brain surgery possible. The idea that a modern economy might need fast, cheap and ubiquitous broadband, or that no-one was claiming that remote brain surgery would be possible, was something to be met with guffaws. In the real world of course, with a great system, a surgeon could be remotely advising a colleague about what to do next. But that was irrelevant compared to the need to attack anything the Rudd Government wanted to do and anything the Murdoch media might not like.

Fifth, Australian productivity is for a number of reasons appalling (except in the increasingly lightly staffed automated iron ore and coal mines the Morrison Government believes will provide lots of the jobs of the future). In contrast, being at the forefront of technology would: help create new internationally competitive industries; enhance the productivity of Australian companies (if they shifted their focus from share buy backs and dividends) and organisations; and, open up the sort of opportunities Ross Garnaut has spelled out in his latest book, Super Power, and Barry Jones was talking and writing about decades ago.

Sadly, since Barry Jones there have been few Australian politicians with a grasp of what technology means and what it can do. The ALP’s Andrew Leigh is one of the few contemporary equivalents although Leigh would be the first to admit he doesn’t possess the Jones’ unique polymathic qualities.

There would, nevertheless, be a nasty problem left to deal with even after we introduce 5G – even if we do it properly. We have a huge sunk cost in the $50 billion NBN lemon. It will be have high levels of debt and declining revenue streams. How that is handled; what the budgetary implications are; and, what the implications of delaying 5G to extend the life of an obsolete national network are a problem for governments long after the broadband debacle Abbott-Turnbull and Morrison have bequeathed us. In this respect perhaps the guiltiest party in all of this NBN mess is Malcolm Turnbull. After all, he knew better, but did others bidding.

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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