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Authoritarian Tech

US reconsiders intelligence partnership with UK over Huawei row

The US and UK are in a confrontation about Chinese technology, and it got worse this week.

The US is so categorically opposed to Chinese tech giant Huawei being part of Britain’s upcoming 5G network that a senior State Department official earlier this week said the US would “have to reassess” its ability to share intelligence with the UK.

The US and UK are both part of the strong, long-standing Five Eyes intelligence alliance that includes Commonwealth nations like Australia and Canada. Britain’s recently announced openness to working with Huawei is a rebuttal to an American campaign to banish Huawei from Western telecommunications.

To give an indication of how sensitive the issue on Chinese tech has become, the British decision on Huawei has already led to a political scandal in Britain. It was first announced during a National Security Council meeting last week and news was then leaked to the press. On Wednesday, an investigation about the circumstances of the leak quickly concluded with the firing of defense secretary Gavin Williamson by Prime Minister Theresa May.

The US’s fear is that Huawei is in some sense beholden to the Chinese government and will use its technological penetration of Western 5G networks to spy on American allies. Though there is no direct evidence that Huawei will do this, the Chinese government has previously used Chinese tech exported abroad to spy on foreign governments.

For its part, the Five Eyes alliance has itself provoked similar worries over global surveillance. In the 2013 Snowden leaks, it became clear that the alliance engaged in mass surveillance internationally, and to a greater extent than previously known. Reports last September suggested that Five Eyes governments were pushing US tech giants to create “back doors” that would allow intelligence agencies to tap into users’ encrypted communications.

So it’s not as if the concerns about Huawei are driven by human rights concerns. Instead, this is part of a Chinese-American turf war about the future of the internet. Last year, Reuters reported that the Five Eyes alliance had begun working systemically to counter Chinese power. Britain’s flirtation with Huawei puts that campaign, and the Five Eyes alliance itself, at risk.

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