Chinese companies building 5G networks could create “chaos” in the UK by hacking into everything from train systems to energy services, a former security minister has warned.
Admiral Lord West, an ex-First Sea Lord who served as security minister under Gordon Brown, told the Sunday Telegraph that Chinese companies could provide Beijing with a backdoor to control Britain’s infrastructure.
“In the worst case scenario, we could have great vulnerabilities in all sorts of areas,” he said.
“All our communications could be hacked. China could switch things off, shut things down. For instance, it could suddenly stop algorithms that train timetables run on…you can just see the chaos that could ensue.”
China is currently a world leader in developing 5G, a next generation mobile internet technology that promises to deliver faster download speeds and better connections. The technology, which is being trialled in the UK, could speed up the creation of “smart cities” in which everything from traffic signals to driverless cars are linked.
Huawei and ZTE, China’s leading telecommunications companies, have been banned from providing 5G equipment to Australia over national security concerns. In a statement, Huawei said the decision was “politically motivated, not the result of a fact-based, transparent, or equitable decision-making process”.
The US has also banned the Chinese multinationals from selling equipment to the federal government. Earlier this week, Republican Marco Rubio and vice-chair Democrat Mark Warner sent a letter to President Justin Trudeau urging him to block Huawei from providing 5G networks in Canada due to a “significant security risk.”
Meanwhile, British telecoms operators were warned not to use ZTE equipment earlier this year. A government report into Huawei’s mobile infrastructure in July found that it had “only limited assurance” that the kit poses no threat to national security.
Lord West is calling for the Government to create a unit that would monitor the risks posed by Chinese companies and report those concerns directly to the prime minister.
“There needs to be very clear ministerial guidance on this,” he said. “We need to know what the risks are. At the moment, it’s all being left a little bit in the air.”
His advice follows claims that China’s People’s Liberation Armysucceeded in infiltrating US companies with tiny spying devices hidden on motherboards across the US, suggesting a far-reaching ability of Chinese spies to infiltrate components being shipped to the West.
“Knowing this, are we really comfortable with Chinese involvement in building the next generations of nuclear power stations in the UK?”, asked former Tory business minister Nick Boles, in response to the claims.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and former chair of the intelligence select committee, said the Government had stepped up its investigations into attacks on national infrastructure.
“There is a heightened importance recognised by Government to the whole critical national infrastructure issues,” he said. “China has a massive cyber capability and a massive hacking capability connected to the People’s Liberation Army.”
Sir Malcolm added the latest threat of a hardware attack would be “on the radar screen” of GCHQ to “identify whether there is a direct threat to the UK”.