The head of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) says a government decision to stop telcos from using “high-risk vendors” to source equipment for their 5G rollouts was “not taken lightly”.
The government earlier this year directed telcos to not use equipment from major Chinese telecommunications suppliers.
A government statement issued in August said it had provided security guidance to Australian telecommunications carriers following “an extensive review of the national security risks to 5G networks”.
The statement didn’t mention Huawei, the world’s biggest supplier of telecommunications equipment, but said that the government considered the “involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorised access or interference.”
Although not spelled out in the statement, the line is understood to have referred to China’s national intelligence law, which requires all organisations to “support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of.”
Huawei has argued the law has no impact on its operations outside China.
Huawei said that the federal government had informed it and fellow Chinese telecommunications equipment provider ZTE that they were banned from providing 5G technology to Australia's telcos.
In the wake of the ban the company said it would “take all possible measures” to protect its “legal rights and interests” but has not revealed details of any plan to challenge the government’s decision.
The government’s decision was made ahead of the Telecommunications Sector Security Reform (TSSR) legislation coming into effect. The TSSR gives the government extensive powers to direct operators of telecommunications networks to do, or not do, certain things that may jeopardise the security of critical telco infrastructure.
In remarks prepared for an address yesterday to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASD director-general Mike Burgess said the government’s decision on 5G was support by technical advice from his organisation.
“Our starting point was that, if 5G technology delivers on its promise, the next generation of telecommunications networks will be at the top of every country's list of critical national infrastructure,” Burgess said.
“5G is not just fast data, it is also high-density connection of devices - human to human, human to machine and machine to machine - and finally it is much lower signal latency or speed of response.
“5G technology will underpin the communications that Australians rely on every day, from our health systems and the potential applications of remote surgery, to self-driving cars and through to the operation of our power and water supply.”
“The stakes could not be higher,” Burgess added. “This is about more than just protecting the confidentiality of our information – it is also about integrity and availability of the data and systems on which we depend. Getting security right for our critical infrastructure is paramount.”
Huawei has previously indicated it was only interested in supplying equipment for the radio access network portion of Australian telcos’ 5G infrastructure. However, Burgess argued that the “distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G networks”.
“That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network,” he said.
“In consultation with operators and vendors, we worked hard this year to see if there were ways to protect our 5G networks if high-risk vendor equipment was present anywhere in these networks.
“At the end of this process, my advice was to exclude high-risk vendors from the entirety of evolving 5G networks.”
Earlier this year the ASD became an independent statutory agency.