ZTE equipment should not be widely deployed in UK networks as it poses a ‘risk of external interference’
The UK’s national cyber-security agency has warned telecoms companies not to use equipment or services from China’s ZTE, saying to do so would harm the country’s national security.
In a letter sent to telecoms firms, ZTE itself and regulator Ofcom, Ian Levy, director of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), warned the use of ZTE equipment or services within existing infrastructure “would present risk to UK national security that could not be mitigated effectively or practicably”.
The move comes as the US government takes ZTE to task in an ongoing row over the company’s earlier contravention of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea, and broader trade frictions between the US and China.
On Monday US officials triggered a ban that would, among other things, prevent ZTE from buying US components.
The move followed ZTE’s agreement last March to pay $1.19 billion (£830m) in fines as part of a settlement of the sanctions charges.
Monday’s denial of export priviliges by the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry (BIS) was a “relevant factor” in the NCSC’s decision to blacklist ZTE, Levy wrote.
He also cited the wide use of equipment from Huawei, another Chinese company, in British broadband and telephone networks.
Both companies pose a “risk of external interference”, Levy wrote.
“Adding in new equipment and services from another Chinese supplier would render our existing mitigations ineffective,” wrote Levy in the letter, which was seen by the Financial Times.
A specialist group staffed by GCHQ, which is also the NCSC’s parent organisation, already monitors Huawei equipment for interference.
The letter cites the fact that ZTE is owned by state, as well as new Chinese laws that alow the government to exert influence over companies and individuals with “wide-ranging powers of compulsion”.
In a statement, Levy said it was “entirely appropriate” for the NCSC to highlight national security risks.
“NCSC assess that the national security risks arising from the use of ZTE equipment or services within the context of the existing UK telecommunications infrastructure cannot be mitigated,” Levy stated.
ZTE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company does not have a broad presence in the UK market, but has said in the past it wishes to expand in Britain.
BT formed a research and development partnership with ZTE in 2011, a year before the US House Intelligence Committee warned that both Huawei and ZTE posed a national security threat and recommended they be banned from the US.
Such warnings have been regularly repeated, and the US blocked the recently proposed takeover of Qualcomm by Broadcom on the grounds that it could boost Huawei’s influence over 5G standards.
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