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Five things about possible involvement of Huawei in Canada's 5G networks

An information board for employees' shuttle bus is on display near the Huawei office building at its research and development centre in Dongguan in south China's Guangdong province on December 18, 2018. The president of Huawei Canada says it will be getting a piece of the US$2-billion that its global Chinese parent will spend over five years to hire more software engineers to make its equipment more secure, resilient and efficient. Huawei Canada president Eric Li said in a statement that its "top priority" has been the security and integrity of the networks that it supports through its technology. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Andy Wong

OTTAWA — Five things about the possible involvement of Huawei Technologies in Canada’s 5G mobile networks:

What is 5G?

The development of 5G — or fifth-generation — mobile networks will give users much faster connections and provide vast data capacity to meet the voracious demand for new applications, such as virtual reality, as people connect more devices to the internet.

In Canada, Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia are among the leading contenders to help telecommunication firms such as BCE and Telus to build 5G networks. But it’s not happening that quickly. The federal government plans to auction spectrum for 5G networks in 2020.

The federal review:

Ottawa is carrying out a comprehensive review of Huawei’s potential involvement in 5G that is believed to include a broader, strategic look at how Canada should make its way in an increasingly global economy. Given the breadth of the review, several agencies — including the Communications Security Establishment, Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and the Privy Council Office — are taking part.

The government has said little publicly about the review, and Huawei Canada acknowledged last month the company had not been briefed on the exercise. The results, though likely several weeks away, are expected before federal election this fall.

Security concerns:

Three of Canada’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group — the United States, Australia and New Zealand — have forbidden the use of Huawei products in 5G network development, though the U.S. ban is currently limited to government agencies.

China’s National Intelligence Law plainly says that Chinese organizations and citizens shall support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work, prompting national security concerns in Canada.

Some security experts say Huawei’s role in 5G could give it access to a wide range of digital data gleaned from how, when and where Canadian customers use their electronic devices. In turn, far-flung government security agencies would find that information highly interesting.

What does Huawei say?

Huawei stresses it is not a state-controlled enterprise and that it would never spy on behalf of China or any other country.

If Huawei were caught doing the bidding of Beijing’s intelligence services, it would be devastating to the company — one of China’s corporate ambassadors on the world stage, Scott Bradley, a Huawei Canada executive, said in an interview last month.

Bradley, who has since left the company, said critics have never clearly defined the perceived security threat. He dismissed any suggestion of data tampering, pointing to safeguards now in place concerning Huawei equipment in Canada’s 4G networks.

Bradley said during a service call, a Huawei technician would be escorted by an employee of the telecom carrier, who would effectively “hold that person’s hand” during any work. “No one from China can go into Canada’s network. Can’t happen, not allowed,” said Bradley.

The political dimension:

Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, last month at the request of the United States, where she is wanted on fraud charges. The move angered Beijing, and two Canadians working in China were arrested soon after on vague allegations of endangering national security — a move widely seen as retaliation against Ottawa. A third had a 15-year prison sentence for drug smuggling increased to the death penalty.

All this has stirred up emotions and coloured the public conversation about Canada’s commercial dealings with China.

Another key dynamic is the fact the U.S. lacks a leading corporate player in the 5G supplier game, giving rise to suggestions that Washington’s pronouncements on Huawei are motivated by commercial worries as much as security and legal concerns.

For its part, the Liberal government has consistently said it will decide the 5G question based on a rational review of the benefits and risks to Canada.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press