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Huawei continues to grow in Ireland while countries like the US and Australia are trying to keep it out

While countries around the world raise security concerns, Ireland remains silent when it comes to the phone manufacturer.

Huawei's headquarters in Shenzhen, China.
Huawei's headquarters in Shenzhen, China.
Image: Huawei Press Office

IRELAND IS A small country with a population of less than 5 million people but that hasn’t discouraged huge investments from multinational tech companies trying to strengthen their foothold both here and across Europe.

Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have all expanded their workforces to varying degrees in recent years, and a buoyant tech start-up community continues to grow by the hour.

The latest investment to land on our shores came in the form of Chinese tech giant Huawei’s €70m investment in research and development (R&D) this week at its three locations in Cork, Dublin and Athlone.

Internationally, however, the company has found itself at the centre of controversy as the US and Australia claim its 5G infrastructure, which is being rolled out in dozens of countries worldwide, will be used by the Chinese government as a tool for international espionage.

Both countries have introduced a ban on Huawei rolling out its 5G infrastructure to telecoms companies, although the company still has R&D centres and sells other products to the US and Australian markets. 

But Ireland has remained noticeably silent on the issue as the company continues to pump money into artificial intelligence (AI) research at its Irish locations.

Huawei has partnered with Irish third-level institutions, including DCU, UCD, and Trinity College where it is funding new AI technologies, video and cloud technologies.

Telecom companies Eir and Vodafone have signed deals with Huawei to deliver 5G networks here, and Eir’s CEO Carolan Lennon said “we’re very confident in Huawei as a partner. No plans to change that. They’re in every network in Ireland”.

Speaking to reporters including TheJournal.ie at its Shenzhen HQ in China this week, the company’s rotating chairman and senior executive, Mr Guo Ping said Ireland is an attractive base for its plans to grow in Europe.

“Ireland is a very open country and has lots of outstanding talent… In Dublin, we are working closely with local partners on software development. In Cork, we have entered into many hardware agreements. In Athlone, we have also established a research centre,” he said.

Huawei will step up its investments in Ireland. Together with the Irish government, customers, partners, and other relevant enterprises, we will explore more opportunities to grow together.

5G mobile internet is tipped to revolutionise internet connectivity, with download speeds more than 10 times faster than the 4G networks being used up to now.

Huawei is just one of three major players in the 5G market – along with Ericsson and Nokia – capable of delivering the infrastructure to telecommunications companies. 

The security concerns are only being levied against Huawei, stemming from Chinese legislation introduced in 2017 which obliges any Chinese company “to support, assist and cooperate” with the government in relation to national intelligence. 

The company denies it is linked to the Chinese government, with Guo saying it is “fake news” and insisting the US has “no evidence” to back it up – while also insisting Huawei would decline to help the Chinese government in this way if requested.   

Guo Ping - roundtable 3 Guo Ping speaks to members of the Irish media at the company's HQ.

Cyber security

Experts in the area of cyber security say the charges against Huawei stem from a political agenda which has led to scaremongering. 

“There is this fear with Huawei, and companies like Huawei, that if there is one company that is controlling the technology that sits at the heart of our vital communications network then it gives the capability to conduct espionage and that’s the fear,” Dr Donna O’Shea, head of the department of computer science at Cork IT said. 
The reality is that there is zero evidence of hacking, and the intelligence agencies in the US and other countries are coming back and saying ‘well there’s no evidence now but there could in the future’.

“They’re saying well it could be installed through a software update, there could be a backdoor installed, and that would enable vulnerabilities in the future.”

O’Shea said that the charges against Huawei are politically motivated and that telecoms companies, which will manage the networks once the infrastructure is installed, are responsible for identifying potential hacks or back doors.

“The EU has stated explicitly that we’re not going to allow fear to dictate… Back doors are difficult to detect but there are investments in R&D that detect backdoors,” she added.

“They made all the software open source so the telecoms should know exactly what their software looks like.”

An EU report recommended that countries put additional safeguards in place to protect national security and that it would not move in the direction of an outright ban against Huawei. 

Meanwhile, the UK has not made a decision on whether it will give Huawei free rein to install 5G software and is under particular pressure from the US which says it will not be able to share intelligence with it if Huawei installs the system.

Along with the US, Australia has also banned Huawei from setting up 5G infrastructure, and Canada says they are still weighing up all their options.

America’s calls for a ban is particularly significant to Japan, Canada, the UK and Australia and New Zealand, as part of the five-eyes intelligence network. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this year said the US would not be willing to share intelligence with countries which has allowed Huawei to install 5G infrastructure. 

Guo in response said: “When it comes to political decisions, what I say may not count for much. I know that many people are concerned about cyber security and that the US is using it as leverage against Huawei.”

‘Test of wills’

The controversy surrounding the Chinese company comes against the backdrop of a decades-long trade war between the US and China, which has come to a head in the past two years under the Trump administration.

In this time, the US has imposed tariffs of $250 billion on Chinese imports prompting Beijing to introduce its own tariffs worth $110 billion on US imports in retaliation.

Some experts believe the heightening tensions have put Huawei at the centre of the trade war as both countries scramble for the greatest control in the lucrative global tech market.

Dr Louis Brennan, professor of international studies at Trinity College Dublin said that Huawei’s position as “the number one provider of technological equipment in the world” and its advancements in 5G poses a threat to the control currently held by the US. 

“China would be very proud of Huawei and see it as emblematic of China’s success and progress, and advancement over recent decades, while the US would see it as a threat to its technological supremacy.

“It’s a test of wills between the US and China… if Huawei continues its success you will see the crumbling of the US tech supremacy and its replacement with Chinese tech supremacy, where China and its company will get to operate at a point where they are leading the race.”

Huawei is a company operating in a “sensitive sector”, which according to Brennan, has seen infrastructure exploited for “nefarious reasons” in the past.

“There’s no question that if you’re in that sector you can certainly allow your equipment to be used for nefarious purposes and so on, and that is a sensitive sector, so it’s unfortunate from Huawei’s perspective, but I’m certainly not attributing that to Huawei.

“The dominance in that sector is going to be so critically important in the future and the spotlight shines on it for those nefarious reasons; the fact that its a sensitive sector, the advent of critical 5G, and for the reasons that this is important for the future.”

Huawei’s Ireland CEO Jijay Shen, while speaking to members of the Irish media this week, said that it has maintained contact with Irish state agencies including ComReg and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment.

“The Irish government has not raised any particular concerns over cyber security. Huawei has established constant communication mechanisms with the Department [...], and with regulators and experts of ComReg,” he said.

“We welcome and support the National Cyber Security Centre, in carrying out industry-wide and evidence-based cyber security assessments of all vendors, rather than just assessments that target Huawei.”

A spokesperson for the Department, when asked if it has been in constant communication with the company, said: 

“The security of telecommunications services, like all critical infrastructure is of critical importance to the security of the State, and to the privacy of data belonging to citizens and businesses.

“The National Cyber Security Centre in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has been reviewing the full spectrum of cyber security risks associated with 5G systems since late 2018.

“This work will feed directly into the new National Cyber Security Strategy and the National Connectivity Strategy.”

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