The United States has been unsuccessful at getting European countries to ban Huawei from building their fifth-generation wireless (5G) networks. It’s not for a lack of trying. Washington has used a variety of approaches to attempt to win Europe’s support on this issue. Washington has tried leading by example, hoping its decision to ban Huawei from U.S. networks would prompt Europe to do the same. U.S. officials have discussed providing subsidies to those countries that purchase 5G equipment from Huawei’s competitors. They have threatened to reduce intelligence sharing if Europe integrates Huawei into its telecommunications infrastructure. They have also highlighted the risks of espionage and threat to critical infrastructure that arise from the use of Huawei equipment. But there is a tactic that the United States hasn’t yet tried—data privacy. Talking to Europe about data privacy and pointing out the risks that Huawei would pose to Europe’s data privacy standards could resonate and help peel Europe away from the technology company.
Europe has long prioritized data privacy. In response to a long history of communist and fascist surveillance of its citizens, Europe has since viewed data privacy as a human right. No one knows this better than the U.S. government and private companies in America. Europe bitterly resisted the United States’ implementation of the Passenger Name Record, which requires the collection of airline passenger data for law enforcement purposes, due to a fear that it endangered data privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelation of the National Security Agency’s spying on European governments sparked outrage and demands for greater oversight of European intelligence agencies who cooperate with the NSA. The EU’s data privacy crusade even focused on private U.S. firms, most recently with Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2014 and other privacy concerns. In light of these events, the EU put into action the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of 2018—legislation that pushed high standards for regulating data privacy and protection. These regulations, which characterize data privacy as a human right, have made Europe the gold standard for data privacy globally.
However, there’s tension building in Europe between the GDPR and EU states that want to continue using Huawei in their 5G networks. By providing network access to Huawei, European governments are potentially putting data privacy at risk. 5G is revolutionary because it provides consumers with up to one hundred times faster connections than 4G while expanding the capacity of networks to handle many more devices. Some 5G-enabled technologies, such as autonomous vehicles or the internet of things devices, involve near-persistent data transfer, meaning a user’s device is constantly sending and receiving data from the network. As data travels from Point A to B, there is a risk that Huawei could capture this data by rerouting it through servers that allow Huawei to copy the data. China has a history of similar actions. In 2010, China Telecom rerouted 15 percent of Internet traffic for eighteen minutes, including from sensitive U.S. government websites. A similar move over 5G networks, given the significant increase in data that will be transmitted over 5G networks than 4G networks, would put the data of over 512 million EU citizens at risk of exploitation by the Chinese state.
Read the full article in The National Interest.
Learn more from Elsa B. Kania's May 2019 essay in Foreign Policy about the latest challenges to global 5G security:
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