tom ridge jeh johnson michael chertoff Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and former DHS Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff meet on Feb. 25, 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

Ridge: Trusting Huawei Not to Use 5G to Spy Is ‘as Delusional as It Gets’

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned that promises of cheaper 5G and a faster buildout “does not trump – pardon the expression – the risk” posed by Huawei to the infrastructure of America and its allies.

A European Union cybersecurity report on the potential threats involving the construction and maintenance of the fifth-generation wireless network is due by Oct. 1. A recent assessment by the German government noted the potential for “espionage of data initiated by nation states or nation state-backed actors” as well as the risk of “large-scale outage or significant disturbance of telecommunications services by nation states or nation state-backed actors exploiting undocumented functions or attacking interdependent critical infrastructures.”

On a Tuesday call hosted by Global Cyber Policy Watch, Ridge acknowledged that “the world is very excited about the development of the 5g network — who wouldn’t be?” That excitement is fueled by the network’s huge potential; “the digital sun is never going to set — it’s only going to get hotter.”

Huawei, though, is “basically an extension of the Chinese government” and letting the telecommunications company take the lead is a “huge national security risk,” the former Pennsylvania governor noted.

Ridge said that with 20-30 billion access points in 5G, letting a foreign actor who has previously demonstrated adversarial use of 21st century technology embed into critical infrastructure “raises too many red flags for me.”

Chris Cummiskey, former DHS under secretary for management and a senior fellow at Virginia Tech’s Hume Center for National Security and Technology, questioned whether the U.S. is “in a position to really counter the kinds of measures that will be brought to bear” and said the country “has to make an important decision about investment” in 5G as allies are tempted by Huawei’s price point.

“We have to recognize as a country the kinds of investments that are going to be necessary,” he said. “…What we can do to convince our allies not to take the lowest-cost alternative?”

The goal to tackle Huawei’s lead in tech, marketing and the supply chain — currently a “wild west scenario,” Cummiskey said — should be to “slow Huawei down and speed up investment,” with partnerships between government and industry as well as more investment in U.S. government R&D.

Nate Snyder, a senior counterterrorism official with DHS and the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force under President Obama and senior advisor at Cambridge Global Advisors, said countries can’t trust Huawei’s pledge to not use 5G inroads to spy given the company’s past behavior of helping crack down on the Uyghur population and helping African countries spy on and crack down on their political opponents.

“It’s not a matter of if Huawei will be exploited by the Chinese government; it’s a matter of when,” he said, adding that China “lost the 4G race and I think made a decision that it would not happen again.”

Snyder stressed that addressing the Huawei threat is a bipartisan issue, as evidenced by current alliances in the Senate, as it’s “not a risk that we and our allies want to take.”

Ridge said Huawei has been doing a “very good job of marketing” by pitching their lower cost in a globally competitive market and telling potential customers “if you want to be the first to 5G, we can get you there.”

But as Chinese President Xi Jinping makes no secret of his goals for the country’s tech greatness moving forward, he said, Xi “looks to dominate not only the Chinese market and control it but dominate in time the global market.”

“The notion of ‘cross my heart, we’re not going to spy on you’ — that’s as delusional as it gets,” Ridge added.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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