Former MI6 boss Sir Richard Dearlove has warned Chinese telecoms giant Huawei could ‘disrupt national security’ in a crisis if it was allowed to help build new, high-speed internet infrastructure.
The ex spy chief also warned against taking mobile phones to China over fears they could be hacked.
In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Sir Richard – who worked at MI6 for 38 years – has slammed the Government’s decision to allow Huawei to take part in the construction of Britain’s new ultra-fast 5G internet network.
In extreme scenarios, he suggested, Huawei’s involvement in building the network, which will allow consumers to download films on their phones in seconds and enable the development of sophisticated technologies like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, could lead to security risks.
‘[It could mean] you lose control of your robots as it were, maybe, to a foreign power,’ he said. ‘In a crisis, they might be able to disrupt our national security communications.’
It emerged last month that Theresa May was prepared to allow Huawei to supply non-core technology for 5G, which could include antennae and other network components. The news emerged through a highly controversial leak that led to the sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.
Earlier this year, Australia banned Huawei from taking part in the construction of its own 5G network. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, last week blasted the UK’s plans to allow the firm to do so here – claiming it would allow China to ‘control the internet of the future’ and ‘divide Western alliances through bits and bytes’.
Sir Richard, who worked across the world as a frontline MI6 officer before rising to lead the organisation, warned Huawei could be ordered by the Chinese state to insert secret chips into 5G infrastructure that could be ‘triggered’ to disrupt British technology. He said Huawei’s insistence it is independent of the Chinese government was ‘irrelevant’.
He added: ‘It’s a significant strategic company in the People’s Republic of China and if the Communist leadership of China says to Huawei at some point, “jump”, the response is: “Well, yes, how high do you want us to jump?” It’s not: “No.” ’ He added that China was ‘very aggressive’ in its intelligence gathering and even warned Britons against taking their normal phones on trips there.
Sir Richard said: ‘If you go to China and you’re an important businessman, and you take the phone you normally use and the iPad that you normally use, the likelihood is that the Chinese will take an interest in that equipment and, as it were, log it against future usefulness. If I’m going to China, I would not take my normal iPad or my normal iPhone. I’d just take a throwaway phone.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘Huawei’s current presence in the UK is subject to detailed, formal oversight, and we have strict controls for how Huawei is deployed. It is not in any sensitive networks – including those of the Government.’ A Huawei spokesman denied the firm would act to damage the UK. He cited a recent speech in which company founder Ren Zhengfei said: ‘Huawei is an independent business, we are committed to be on the side of our customers when it comes to cyber security and protecting privacy.
‘We will never harm any nation or individual.’
I worked behind the Iron Curtain for a period of almost four years, living under scrutiny and surveillance, with microphones in my house and being followed around all the time.’
These are not words one would usually expect to hear at the AGM of a small listed company. But not many firms can boast a former head of the Secret Intelligence Service as their chairman.
Sir Richard Dearlove is renowned as the man who headed up MI6 during a critical period in the history of this country – at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and the commencement of the controversial War On Terror.
After 38 years in the service – many of which were spent in frontline positions – Dearlove left the organisation in 2004. But rather than slinking away into an anonymous retirement, the 74-year-old has gone on to build his name in the worlds of business and academia.
Today, he is a director of US oil and gas firm Kosmos Energy and chairs insurance firm Ascot Underwriting, the University of London and Crossword Cybersecurity, a start-up that recently listed on the London Stock Exchange. It’s his work at Crossword that means Dearlove spent last Thursday hosting investors in the drab offices of a City of London law firm – a far cry from operating behind the Iron Curtain in Prague.
Crossword remains a minnow – valued at around £24 million following a sharp increase in its share price in the months since it moved its listing to the LSE from rival small stock exchange Nex – but Dearlove is confident it can exploit a fast-growing market.
The firm, which has 35 employees, acts as an incubator by turning university research into marketable cyber security products for businesses. Its main product is Rizikon, a tool that allows firms to analyse their IT systems and ensure they are sufficiently protected against cyber threats.
‘The market’s potentially huge,’ he says. ‘Serious cyber security is relatively young. A lot of companies haven’t taken it very seriously – there have been quite a number of significant security accidents, and therefore people are much more focused on it.’
Dearlove is rarely interviewed but his political voice has grown louder in recent months. He is pro-Brexit and favours a No Deal over Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which he fears could damage our national standing in security.
This week, he is set to propel himself into the centre of a brewing political row surrounding Chinese telecoms company Huawei and its potential role in the development of new 5G technology in the UK.
Dearlove has written the foreword for a report by the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank that will warn Huawei’s involvement could pose a national security risk.
It first emerged last month – via a controversial leak that led to the sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson – that the Government had chosen to allow Huawei to supply non-core technology for 5G, which could include antennae and other network components. The new technology is an upgrade to 4G and 3G, which provide internet connections to mobile phones. 5G promises to offer ultra-fast internet, which could enable people to download films, for instance, on their phones within seconds.
The network could also be used to enable self-driving cars to operate, using live maps and traffic updates, and lead to new, advanced forms of artificial intelligence.
Dearlove is deeply concerned about the potential involvement of Huawei, fearing the company could be forced to do the bidding of its home nation. At best, this could mean intelligence gathering. At worst, it could effectively mean taking control of British technological infrastructure. ‘This is an issue of national security, so it has pretty profound implications,’ he says. ‘I’m, in common with a number of others, strongly opposed to allowing Huawei a significant role in the UK’s 5G systems.’
Huawei has been present in the UK for 18 years and has 1,600 employees here. But Dearlove insists that ‘controlling Huawei risk at the 4G level is only marginally relevant to controlling Huawei risk at the 5G level’.
He fears, for instance, that Huawei could potentially insert secret chips into infrastructure that could go undetected but be ‘triggered’ to disrupt technology at a later date. He says: ‘You lose control of your robots as it were, maybe, to a foreign power. In a crisis, they might be able to disrupt our national security communications.’
In defence of Huawei, supporters point out the firm is independent of the nation’s government. But Dearlove dismisses this as ‘irrelevant’.
‘It’s a significant strategic company in the People’s Republic of China and if the Communist leadership of China says to Huawei at some point, “jump”, the response is: “Well, yes, how high do you want us to jump?” It’s not: “No.” ’
He adds that even if the UK and China remain on friendly terms, British citizens should still be concerned. Dearlove says China is ‘very aggressive’ in its intelligence gathering, and so will ‘use their technology to collect intelligence on the UK’.
He also has a stark warning for anyone planning to visit China, particularly if they have secrets to hide. ‘If you go to China and you’re an important businessman, and you take the phone that you normally use and you take the iPad that you normally use, the likelihood is that the Chinese will take an interest in that equipment and, as it were, log it against future usefulness.
‘Whether they do anything with that might depend on who you are and what you do. But if I’m going to China, I would not take my normal iPad or my normal iPhone. I’d just take a throwaway phone so I could throw the chip away afterwards.’
Such warnings might be written off as mad paranoia if they came from anybody else. But Dearlove, an intelligence veteran, commands respect when it comes to security issues. And it’s this same experience that has enabled him to move seamlessly into the business world.
One issue that still exercises Dearlove is the ‘inaccurate’ portrayal of the secret services in popular culture. The James Bond series of films, he says, is a prime example. He says the thrillers written by John Le Carré and Alan Judd provide a ‘much more honest picture about what life in MI6 was like’.
In stark contrast to the womanising 007, Dearlove has been happily married for more than 50 years and dismisses the macho image of MI6 portrayed in the films.
‘It wasn’t a chauvinist environment at all. Women have an important role to play in espionage and security, and always have done.’
So would a female James Bond – a proposal that has raised eyebrows among some Bond fans – help redress the balance? ‘If there’s a capable person to do it, it doesn’t matter whether a man or a woman, they should get the job.’