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UK Watchdog Criticizes Huawei for Lax Software Security, Development
Calling the company's software development practices chaotic and unsustainable, a UK government oversight group calls on the company to make measurable progress toward more secure and sustainable code.
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer
March 29, 2019
5 Min Read
The group responsible for overseeing Huawei's technical compliance with software and security standards in the UK roundly criticized the company for "serious and systematic defects in software engineering and cyber security competence" in a report released Thursday.
The annual report summarized the findings of the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board, a panel of experts from the UK's National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) tasked with evaluating the efforts of Huawei to adhere to technical and cybersecurity standards. The group's fifth report found that the company continues to fail to adhere to basic secure coding practices, uses unsafe functions and libraries, suppresses warnings from security tools, and has an unmanageable build process.
"Given the scale of the issues, significant and sustained evidence of improvement across multiple versions and multiple products will be necessary to begin to build confidence in Huawei's software engineering and cyber security quality and development processes," the report stated. "A single 'good' build will provide no confidence in the long-term security and sustainability of the product in the real world."
The criticism comes as some Western governments are pushing back at Huawei's success in telecommunications networking technology. The US has pushed back against Huawei's success in cellular communications infrastructure and the rollout of 5G technology worldwide, going so far as passing a law to ban the technology in the US and threatening to curtail intelligence sharing with some nations. Huawei fired back, filing suit against the US government in US courts.
Yet the issues identified by the UK's NCSEC Oversight Board are more fundamental than political. Technology companies, especially those responsible for critical infrastructure, need to have better development practices in place, says Lane Thames, senior security researcher at Tripwire.
"Security evaluations of their hardware and software before production deployment should be required," he says. "The organization who runs the infrastructure should implement strong foundation controls, such as change management, file integrity monitoring, secure configuration management, and vulnerability management, to ensure that systems comply with security policies once they are in production."
Huawei has repeatedly committed to improving its software development and secure coding standards, but has so far failed to implement better practices, the HCSEC Oversight Board stated in the report.
The Oversight Board's analysis of the company's use of the open source OpenSSL codebase, for example, found that it used 70 full copies of four different versions, 304 partial copies of 14 versions, and fragments of 10 other versions. Later versions of the company's code had reduced the number, but the board members said it contained "code that is vulnerable to 10 publicly disclosed OpenSSL vulnerabilities, some dating back to 2006."
Another analysis of safe memory-handling functions found that the 11% of direct byte-copying functions, 22% of string-copying functions, and 9% of string-printing functions used unsafe variants.
"Despite Huawei mandating application of its secure coding standards across R&D, extensive use of commercial static analysis tools and Huawei's insistence that risky code has been refactored, there has been little improvement in the object software engineering and cyber security quality of the code delivered for assessment by HCSEC and onward to the UK operators," the board members stated in the report.
Huawei did not respond to a request for comment sent vie e-mail, but the company has committed to investing $2 billion over the next five years in its software engineering process. The Oversight Board lauded the commitment, but questioned how little progress is visible.
"This proposed investment, while welcome, is currently no more than a proposed initial budget for, as yet, unspecified activities," the board members stated in the report.
The problem is not just with Huawei, however. Other companies — from Microsoft to Cisco — often have critical vulnerabilities in their software but have generally embarked on secure programming initiatives to train developers in secure coding practices.
"The problem here is that, one, developing secure software is hard, and, two, we are failing to integrate security fundamentals into our education system for STEM-based students," Tripwire's Thames said. "Vendors who develop Internet-connected hardware and software should ensure that they implementing secure coding practices."
Cybersecurity and geopolitical concerns have had an increasing impact on how companies do business. Two-thirds of security professionals have had to change where and with whom they do business because of cybersecurity concerns, according to a survey conducted by security firm Tripwire at the RSA Conference last month.
"While some of these responses are not surprising, it’s likely that we're underestimating the impact that growing nation-state cyberattacks have on business choices," said Tim Erlin, vice president of product management and strategy at Tripwire, in a post. "We may not be far off from a time when locating a business in a nation that provides strong defenses is viewed as a competitive advantage."
Calling on Huawei to provide demonstrable evidence that its software development practices have changed, the HCSEC Oversight Board stated that "strongly worded commitments from Huawei in the past have not brought about any discernable improvements," the report stated.
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About the Author(s)
Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.
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