Your cybersecurity is a top priority say Huawei and SA Telcos
JOHANNESBURG – A recent series of articles by Heidi Swart has made reference to a report published a year ago by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in Britain, and raised questions about cybersecurity in South Africa’s telecommunications networks.
It is public knowledge that Huawei voluntarily participates in the HSEC, partnering with the UK government and its cybersecurity centre to identify any security concerns around Huawei equipment and to address them to protect the privacy and security of all users.
Crucially, Swart also acknowledges in her report that “British intelligence services have been scrutinising Huawei’s network equipment for more than a decade, but have never reported evidence of the Chinese state using the company’s technology for espionage.”
Let’s pause on that paragraph for a moment. Ten years of investigation and the country that gave us James Bond and decoded the German Enigma machine, to help end the Second World War, have nothing?
“What the British raise is cyber security concerns” says Vanashree Govender, spokesperson for Huawei South Africa. “This is true for all countries all the time. New technologies are constantly scrutinised by governments, regulators and specialists. In the UK our equipment is put under the most stringent scrutiny, regarded as the toughest in the world.”
Africa’s largest telecom operator MTN responded to Swart saying it was “aware of the potential issues and we conduct security assessments on an ongoing basis, both internally and through external security providers”.
Vodacom, which enjoys the largest market share in South Africa also gave its assurances: “We conduct thorough security assessments to ensure that the security of the platforms we deploy meets our rigorous security requirements.”
In addition, the company, which forms part of a global telecoms empire said it “works closely with host governments to ensure that our network security is compliant with any national requirements. This is the case in South Africa”.
It is Telkom’s polite reply which perhaps suggests where these concerns are coming from. In its response to Swart, it said: “Telkom is cognisant of the geopolitical implications around using Huawei and is actively looking at its strategic approach regarding this going forward.”
This diplomatic reply points to the West’s increasing paranoia over Chinese-led technological advances. Where once western governments enjoyed economic and technological dominance over the globe they no longer do.
According to another South African telco, rain. “Huawei is a world leader in 5G technology, and a trusted partner from rain's point of view” it said in response to Swart.
The company said: “rain has no reason to believe that Huawei equipment specifically carries increased security risks compared to other vendors. We have seen the findings of the HCSEC board report (published in March 2019) which Huawei has undertaken to correct, and have made significant progress in doing so.”
South Africa has much to gain from the 5G transition, including a chance to leapfrog developed countries, as we close the digital divide and the coverage gap.
New technologies usually come with new concerns, that is for sure. But the important thing is we have the right laws, regulations and mechanism in place to deal with it. The mechanism is binding to all players, from individuals to national-level decision-makers. Narrowing the focus on one piece of the whole map is not helpful but misleading. The response from telcos shows it is the common responsibility.
Dr David Monyae, the co-director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg, argues that African countries are not obliged to follow the demands made by US President Donald Trump to reject Chinese technologies.
Monyae criticised Swart’s first article on Huawei suggesting that “one can rightfully conclude that Swart has her mind made up”.
It is hard to dispute this when Swart refers to Huawei as “a different kind of virus”. The reference is clearly to Covid-19 which originated in Wuhan and has also resulted in xenophobic remarks US President Donald Trump, which he later tried to defend.
“In every country that we operate in, we remain a committed partner to the telecommunications industry and abide fully by state laws and regulations” says Govender. “This is certainly the case here, and we look forward to continuing to grow our open, progressive relationship with our partners across South Africa. The fact that our company was founded in China is not relevant.”