Chinese mobile mast lurks at Munich security conference – Politico

MUNICH — The world’s security elite are gathering in Munich this week, linking their mobile phones to Chinese telecom equipment dotting the venue.

Heads of state, security chiefs, spooks and intelligence officials head to Germany on Friday for their blue-ribbon annual gathering, the Munich Security Conference. The event’s VIP list includes US Vice President Kamala Harris, German President Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and hundreds of other heads of state and government, ministers and foreign dignitaries.

The gathering takes place at the five-star hotel Bayerischer Hof. From the ice-themed Polar Bar on the hotel’s rooftop, you can overlook the city’s skyline, seeing multiple telecommunications antennas in the church steeple. Some of those antennas within 300 meters of the hotel are equipped with hardware supplied by the controversial Chinese telecom giant Huawei, POLITICO has learned through visual confirmation, talks with several equipment experts and industry insiders with knowledge of the area’s networks.

A mast atop the Hotel Beyrischer Hof building is also potentially equipped with Huawei gear, two industry insiders have suggested.

The question of whether Chinese 5G providers should be allowed into Western countries has become a bone of contention between Berlin on one side and Washington and like-minded partners on the other in recent years. This week’s rally also comes as the U.S. continues to tout Germany’s economic dependence on Beijing, a new report shows Germany’s trade deficit with China is set to explode in 2022, and sky-high tensions between Washington and Beijing over U.S. surveillance balloons. , Canada and elsewhere.

“Reliance on Huawei components in our 5G network continues to pose an incalculable security risk,” said Maximilian Funke-Kaiser, a liberal member of the German Bundestag and digital policy speaker for the government party Free Democratic Party (FDP).

“The use of Huawei technology in mobile networks here goes against the goals of Germany’s security policy,” Funke-Kaiser said, calling the vendor’s involvement in German 4G and 5G “a mistake given the Chinese company’s closeness to the state.”

Huawei has consistently denied the security risks posed by European countries.

Delving into the data

Despite extensive reporting, Politico was unable to gather on-the-record confirmation of which vendor’s telecom equipment was used for which mast. Operators and vendors have refused to release information, citing contractual obligations, and local authorities have said they do not have the information available.

The security risks associated with Huawei’s equipment also vary and differ between close allies in the West. Some capitals argue that the real risk of Chinese telecom equipment is over-reliance on a Chinese firm in an unstable geopolitical situation – as Europe relies on Russian gas for its energy needs.

But others argue that the risks run deeper, and that China could use Huawei equipment and data on European mobile networks — especially those of critical importance and high sensitivity — to jeopardize Western security. Huawei has been implicated in several high-profile espionage cases, including on the African Union headquarters.

Munich Security Conference held at five-star hotel ‘Bayerscher Hof’ Ronald Wittek/EPA-EFE

Asked about Huawei’s presence in Munich, Republican and US House Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher said Politico’s findings were “appalling” and “should concern everyone attending the conference.”

The chair of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, a Democrat who is attending the conference, said it was a timely reminder that we must continue to work with like-minded allies to promote safe and competitively priced alternatives to Huawei equipment.

US Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (Republican, Florida) said US diplomats “should be aware of the risks and take the necessary precautions.”

Munich Networking

From Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s 2007 speech to US President Joe Biden’s virtual speech at the start of his mandate in February 2021, the conference seeks to set the agenda for global diplomacy and international relations. Its organizers see it as an open space for debate on geopolitics and world affairs, with participants from around the world and an advisory board where Chinese state officials sit alongside Western diplomats and industry leaders.

The conference guest list reveals more: The gathering is viewed as critical by US government officials. This year, the United States is sending its largest delegation yet, with Harris joined by Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and dozens of government officials, security chiefs and congressmen.

For these US participants – and for Western partners who see eye to eye with the US position on Chinese telecom giant Huawei – the networks around the premises prove problematic.

An online map on the website of Germany’s telecom agency, Bundesnetzagentur, shows 13 locations for masts and antennas around the Hotel Beirischer Hof. The agency provides information on which of the country’s three main operators – Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefonica – use which locations.

POLITICO shared photos of the seven masts near the hotel with four people Specialists in Telecom Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment. These experts established that at least two The Chinese telecom giant was equipped with gear from Huawei.

If a network operator has a mast equipped with Huawei in Munich, it will likely equip all masts in the area with the same vendor, two industry insiders said. Operators usually use one provider for larger areas. That means at least one other location is also likely equipped with Huawei gear, insiders said. Three other locations, including masts on the roof of the conference venue, are used by one operator using Huawei equipment, but these locations are part of infrastructure shared by several operators, meaning that these are likely to be equipped with Huawei gear, but this is not certain.

The results are consistent with recent reports on Germany’s telecom infrastructure.

Huawei’s stronghold in the west is Europe’s largest economy. A report by boutique telecom intelligence firm Strand Consult estimated that Germany relies on Chinese technology for 59 percent of its ongoing 5G network deployment. The country already had a heavy reliance on Chinese equipment in its 4G network, with Strand estimating that Huawei accounted for 57 percent.

In February 2021, US President Joe Biden spoke at a virtual event at the Munich Security Conference — Biden emphasized the US’s commitment to NATO after four years of the Trump administration undermining the alliance. (Pooled image by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“If you look at the percentage of Chinese equipment in Germany, you can say it’s the most unsafe country in Europe,” said John Strand, founder of Strand Consult. “Welcome to the Munich Security Conference: we cannot guarantee your security,” he quipped.

The black hole of telecom intelligence

It is extremely difficult to establish with certainty how many of the 13 masts are equipped with Chinese telecom gear. Both German operators and their vendors have a policy of not communicating what equipment they are using in which location, citing contractual obligations regarding confidentiality.

Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone have confirmed that they use Huawei in their German antenna networks. Telefonica says it uses a “mix of European and international network providers” in Germany Still, all declined to comment on whether Huawei is used in Munich.

Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei all declined to comment on whether they were supplying gear to the greater Munich area, citing questions from local operators.

Government regulators, too, do not disclose details of which suppliers provide gear for specific locations. The Federal Network Agency and the federal Office for Information Security have admitted they do not know which equipment is mounted on which mast; Both referred to the Home Ministry for a reply. The Interior Ministry said it “generally does not know which critical components are installed in detail on which radio mast.”

Hotel Bayerischer Hof referred questions about its rooftop mobile infrastructure to the organizers of the security conference.

The Munich Security Conference itself said in a statement: “In principle, we do not comment on the exact details of the infrastructure used for the main conference in Munich. We are in close contact with all relevant authorities to secure the conference venue, participants and digital space accordingly.”

The Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) provides its own security network for official events, but the Munich Security Conference is “outside BSI’s responsibility,” BSI said in an email.

Germany’s telecom obscurity

Alex Younger, head of the UK intelligence service MI6, told an audience that it was possible for Huawei to spy on users of a network or disrupt communications through 5G equipment. His second public address.

But John Li, director of consultancy East-West Future and an expert on Chinese digital policy, said whether Huawei’s equipment represented a material security risk to existing telecom networks was “not a clear technical issue”.

“Some non-Western countries are moving to upgrade their telecom infrastructure with Huawei as a key partner,” Li said. “It is still mainly a political issue how much doubt there is on the ambitions of the Chinese state and its relationship with Chinese companies.”

In an effort to coordinate a common approach with vendors, the EU developed “5G Security Toolbox” guidelines in 2019 and 2020 to reduce security risks in networks. Some major European countries, including France, have imposed strict restrictions on their operators, including restricting the use of “high-risk vendors” — a term used across Europe by Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE — to certain strategic geographic areas.

In Germany, however, policymakers have taken years to agree on their framework for 5G security. In April 2021 – more than a year after the EU’s joint plan came out – it passed measures allowing the government to interfere in operators’ contracts with Chinese vendors.

But those interventions still haven’t stopped Huawei from using it in certain geographic areas.

And the interior ministry — which has veto power to ban or withdraw certain materials if it deems them to be an “obstacle to public order or security” — hasn’t intervened much either, a ministry spokesman said by email.

So far, the spokesman said, the specific order to exclude Huawei from the German network “has not been issued.”

Alex Ward, Maggie Miller and Tristan Fiedler contributed reporting.