The Sunday Times has an article about the unspecified potential threat to the UK's telecomms cloud, and thereby to the UK's Critical National Infrastructure, posed by Chinese designed and manufactured equipment from http://www.huawei.com
From The Sunday Times
March 29, 2009
INTELLIGENCE chiefs have warned that China may have gained the capability to shut down Britain by crippling its telecoms and utilities.
They have told ministers of their fears that equipment installed by Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, in BT's new communications network could be used to halt critical services such as power, food and water supplies.
The warnings coincide with growing cyberwarfare attacks on Britain by foreign governments, particularly Russia and China.
A confidential document circulating in Whitehall says that while BT has taken steps to reduce the risk of attacks by hackers or organised crime, "we believe that the mitigating measures are not effective against deliberate attack by China".
It is understood that Alex Allan, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), briefed members of the ministerial committee on national security about the threat from China at a top-secret Whitehall meeting in January.
According to Whitehall sources, the meeting, led by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, heard that ministers had "not paid sufficient attention to the threat in the past", despite repeated warnings from the intelligence services. These included warnings from the security arm of GCHQ, which expressed concern because government departments, the intelligence services and the military will all use the new BT network.
A Whitehall report is understood to warn that, although there is at present a "low" risk of China exploiting its capability, "the impact would be very high".
What exactly is the risk or fear ?
Alleged Chinese "cyber attacks" involving email trojan horse software attachments etc. (many of which are likely to really originate in the USA or Russia etc.) is not the same issue as Chinese manufactured hardware at the heart of the UK's telecommunications infrastructure cloud.
Firstly, if UK Government or Critical National Infrastructure communications are not already being strongly encrypted, using UK Government approved cryptographic systems and equipment, end-to-end through the BT "telecomms cloud", then they should be, immediately.
The existing Cisco (United States) and Ericsson (Sweden) and other foreign equipment which makes up the bulk of BT's current network infrastructure is not immune to design or manufacturing or end user configuration errors, which allow remote attackers or automated computer malware to compromise the security of individual routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, proxy servers, telephone exchanges, quality of service traffic shapers, fibre optic and 3GPP mobile phone equipment or end user devices etc.
BT has, in the past, has managed to deploy insecure versions of, say, their BT HomeHub broadband internet, WiFi and VoIP router to literally millions of customers ( a design from the French based multinational Alcatel/Thompson), and has usually fixed the problems, eventually.
The same is true for every other major Western telecomms and internet service provider company.
If the new BT 21st Century network is designed and rolled out properly, then breaking the monoculture of, using, for example, only Cisco equipment to handle a particular service or major Critical National Infrastructure client, by adding equivalent Huawei equipment into the mix, with its independently developed software and hardware designs, may actually increase the resilience and security of the network overall - "don't put all your eggs in one basket".
Obviously MI5, MI6 and GCHQ would have to make sure that the Huawei equipment used to connect British government or intelligence agency or other Critical National Infrastructure systems together is not a subtlety different version, from that actually used by the Chinese government itself, so that they are just as vulnerable or invulnerable, to accidental security vulnerabilities, which we may actually discover and exploit before they do.
This may require some actual human intelligence activity in mainland China i.e. intelligence gathering or spying, to obtain or get access to Chinese versions of the equipment being sold to us,in order to run cryptographic checksums on the software and hardware designs. (ideally not MD5, but something stronger).
Hopefully they already do this for US and Swedish equipment, if they do not already have, by agreement, access to the software source code and integrated circuit designs.
If Huawei are supplying customised versions of their equipment to BT, then similar cryptographic checksums need to be checked to see that what is actually being supplied is exactly the design which was agreed and security audited. Huawei may be persuaded, for financial or political reasons, to reveal some or all of their software source code, on confidence, for such security evaluations.
It should not be too hard to detect deliberate remote access trojan horse software, to prevent copies of secret data from being hijacked.
The problem of hard coded weaknesses or exploits coded into the electronic chips themselves, is a harder problem, especially if it just results in a Denial of Service attack on the device.
Hopefully such hardware exploits are already being researched, in case "trojan chips" are substituted into, say Cisco equipment, by spies or criminals or terrorists. If the Labour politicians or Treasury gnomes refuse to fund such cyberwarfare reverse engineering and security auditing, then they are criminally negligent idiots, or possible traitors.
It would be incredibly risky for the Chinese Government to attempt to insert such trojan horse "backdoors" into Huawei manufactured equipment, especially into the hardware, where the evidence cannot be deleted after a Denial of Service attack etc.
The cost of using such a capability, if it even exists, would be to immediately destroy the multi billion pound Huawei company commercially.
Any accidental or deliberate Huawei hardware security weaknesses are just as likely to be discovered and exploited by foreign amateur or professional hackers, as they are by Chinese ones, so their own systems are just as likely to be vulnerable to such attacks.
N.B. these are exactly the same problems faced by the security and intelligence agencies of all countries which do not have their own telecommunications equipment design and manufacturing industry, or a computer software equivalents of Microsoft or IBM, or microprocessor companies like Intel or AMD etc. The Iranian government, for example, appears to be trying to move away from Microsoft Windows towards open source Linux software, because of such security fears: Security fears spark Linux drive in Iran
The Sunday Times article also mentions the UK based Marconi debacle, something which this useless Labour government did nothing to prevent the bankruptcy of, and the subsequent sell off of its intellectual assets to foreign companies, in spite of their hypocritical claims about "national security".