What role can Chinese network supplier Huawei play in building Germany's 5G network? It's a question of faith, but not only — so Berlin is taking its time to give a definitive answer.
Digital infrastructure is vital to any modern economy. Businesses communicate via data networks, sensitive information is stored in cloud services, machines and entire industrial plants are maintained remotely.
If in the future everything from installing and equipping machines to handling logistics and billing is interconnected and artificial intelligence plays a central role, then the security of this data will be even more important than it already is.
Unauthorized access to data by competitors could hurt competitiveness and ruin companies. Simple sabotage would do the trick, too. In short, our future prosperity depends on this data.
This dangerous situation is at the heart of the current debate about mobile communications equipment suppliers from China, in particular the global leader, Huawei.
Arguments against Huawei
Opponents of Huawei's involvement in building the 5G next generation of mobile data networks cite two arguments:
First, they say Huawei is too dependent on the Chinese government. Politicians could force the company to hand over data or tell it what to do.
Secondly, Huawei could build "backdoors" into the software of its network components that allow spies to access sensitive data. It is also possible to install a sabotaging "kill switch" in the software that could paralyze the data networks, the argument goes.
Is this criticism justified?
Huawei itself rejects both allegations. Company founder Ren Zhengfei was an engineer with the Chinese army before he founded the company in 1987. Today, however, he only holds less than 2 percent of the company's shares. The remaining shares are held by employees and a trade union committee. How big the influence of the state really is remains a mystery, though.
The German government and policymakers in other Western nations point to a Chinese law that obligates domestic firms to cooperate with intelligence agencies. "This law is of great concern to us, because firms lose control over their products," a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry told DW.
During her trip to Japan Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there needed to be talks with the Chinese leadership to tell it that companies should not be made to hand over data to the state just like that.
Huawei emphasizes there's no law that would require it to implement backdoors in its software, nor has it ever been told to do so. To prove its case, Huawei installed one more security lab, this time in Bonn, Germany, where it grants access to its source code to trusted third parties.
These trusted parties are mobile network operators Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefonica (O2) plus experts from Germany's Federal Office for Information Technology (BSI).
"In the lab, we all have enhanced opportunities to scrutinize products with a view to spotting any IT and cybersecurity issues," a BSI spokesman told DW. The office also gets Huawei equipment components from other parts of the world to check them against security risks.
So far, the experts couldn't find anything suspicious. BSI President Arne Schönbohm therefore sees no reason to ban Huawei from Germany's 5G project.
He said in December of last year that "you need hard evidence before you can impose a ban," adding that his office wasn't aware of any such evidence.
Who can you trust?
But the skeptics look at it differently. They argue that backdoors could be built in at a later stage during software updates.
"You can put security mechanisms in place and minimize the risks, but you cannot completely eliminate any risks," said Gerhard Schindler, a former president of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND).
He won't even rule out the possibility of China crippling the data network with the help of a kill switch. "Such a scenario doesn't have to be just fiction," said Schindler, who now works as a lobbyist for the Berlin-based security consultancy Friedrich 30.
All mobile network providers in Germany have used equipment from Huawei. The picture shows cell towers for the current LTE data transmission standard
Publications by whistleblower Edward Snowden had shown that US intelligence employees had gained access to sensitive data from companies through software backdoors — that is they had done exactly what Washington is accusing China of.
The US stresses, though, it's using such data only in a political context and not in order to give domestic firms a competitive edge, which it says would not be covered by legislation. How you view such backdoor activities is pretty much a matter of what political system you believe in and who you trust.
China is no Western country, no democracy and not among Germany's defense allies. There's also a good deal of mistrust of the Chinese judiciary. Only recently, such misgivings were fueled when China arrested a group of Canadian citizens — apparently in response to the arrest in Canada of Huawei's CFO.
For German business, China is an important sales market. It is unclear whether restrictions on Huawei in Germany would entail disadvantages for German companies in China.
Policymakers in focus
The US has excluded Huawei from its network market for security reasons. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Japan, Huawei components are not allowed, or only in a very limited fashion, to be used for building national 5G networks.
Pressure is also mounting on the German government as Washington urges its allies to renounce the use of Huawei equipment.
"5G has to be secure; that's our main priority," said a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry. "The government is thus weighing all measures to guarantee secure implementation."
Last week, there were a couple of meetings among government representatives, security agencies and network operators in Germany. According to media reports, it looks like the BSI will tighten its requirements for the procurement of network components — without completely shutting out Huawei at this stage.
The Interior Ministry says there's no deadline for a decision on how to treat Huawei in the future. "We'll take all the time we need for it," the spokesman told DW, adding that the start of the 5G frequency auction in mid-March must not be misunderstood as an inevitable deadline either.
What about the network operators?
Time's running out for the network operators here. Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefonica have so far relied on Huawei technology and voiced their concerns about a possible ban.
According to German business daily Handelsblatt, Telekom and Telefonica may be looking to ban Huawei technology from their core networks. Vodafone says it currently doesn't use any components from the Chinese provider in its core network anyway.
However, a total ban on using Huawei components in Germany's 5G network seems hardly conceivable as this could easily mean a two-year delay in getting the high-speed system up and running.
In addition, it's totally unclear what a ban would mean for the current 4G/LTE data transmission standard. Dismantling it — completely or in parts — would be time-consuming and expensive. And it would bind resources that are badly needed to get 5G off the ground.