It’s not just Huawei that we need to worry about

By Darryl Carlton

February 25, 2019

Can we expect honesty and transparency when it comes to what the US government is telling us about Huawei?

There has been a lot of discussion about Huawei and its links to the Chinese government and the need to protect Australia from the risks of allowing foreign technology providers to have access to critical communications infrastructure.

The problem with this statement, of course, is that all the providers of communications equipment and technology infrastructure are foreign. The local Australian industry has been decimated by successive governments all preferring the easier route of buying rather than building.

The knee-jerk reaction to that observation will be that we buy from our friends and allies. But the United States, while an ally, has not been very friendly when it comes to the role that technology plays in today’s world. It is well known that US spy agencies eavesdropped on the leaders of countries that were, and still are, close allies. President Trump may not consider Chancellor Merkel to be a friend, but the countries are allies and were meant to be working together, just like Australia and the US.

It is also well known that the ‘Five Eyes’ consortium has “called on tech companies to build backdoors into their encrypted products”.

Backdoor access the key issue

The issue of Huawei and the risks that it imposes are more to do with the fact that US spy agencies cannot direct Huawei to provide backdoor access, where it can do that with US technology providers.

The US government is telling the world that Huawei is a danger. Yet the US government has a history of providing misleading information in order to gain the cooperation of its allies. Under the presidency of George Bush, the US manipulated the evidence on weapons of mass destruction, this much is clear.

“The issue of Huawei and the risks that it imposes are more to do with the fact that US spy agencies cannot direct Huawei to provide backdoor access.”

Can we expect greater honesty and transparency when it comes to what the US government is telling us about Huawei?

The US has a vested interest in ensuring that the technology provided by its tech companies forms the backbone of the world’s communications infrastructure. And we have a history of the US breaching our trust when it comes to electronic eavesdropping, and the trust of our allies.

The choice for Australia appears to be that we either allow our most important military ally to be the exclusive provider of our communications infrastructure, or we allow our biggest trading partner to provide technology. Either way, it appears that both the US and China are capable of using their technology superiority to undermine our democratic institutions.

What is particularly sad about this state of affairs, is that Australia has a very proud history of technology innovation. We have led many of the most important developments:

  • CSIRAC was the world’s second computer and is now on display at the Melbourne Museum. The British were first, the Americans were third.
  • The cockpit voice recorder known worldwide as the ‘black box’ was invented in Australia
  • Wi-Fi was invented in Australia
  • Google Maps was invented in Australia

The list is significantly longer than this, but the point is that Australia is capable of advancing its own solutions to complex technology problems. Many years ago, the US government would award supply contracts to local (US) companies that could provide a design to a solution. This was how they built an industry. And this was how the US became the technology behemoth that it is today.

As was highlighted in the introduction of a 2015 report entitled “Technology and Australia’s Future”[1]: “Australia sits at the bottom of the OECD ladder in terms of firms collaborating on innovation with higher education or public research institutions, we have to adopt some novel approaches to energise our capabilities in innovation”.

This same report went on to state that governments can influence technological inertia by:

  • Limiting the political influence of businesses heavily vested in current technologies, and ensuring that new players have an equivalent voice.
  • Publicly recognising that technological change can lead to new businesses that create jobs.
  • Directly investing in basic research to encourage technology development and adoption.

We need a new approach to the adoption of technology in Australia that does not make us dependent upon either the US or China.

[1] Technology and Australia’s Future, Australian Academy of Learned Academies, ISBN 978-0-9943738-0-9

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