China's Cyber Threat: How Germany Is Securing Its 5G Network

18-04-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

As China continues to escalate tensions with Taiwan, countries around the world are evaluating their infrastructure for safety against potential Chinese cyberattacks, and now Germany is addressing security risks in its 5G network by investigating Chinese components, such as microprocessors and microcontrollers, which can introduce backdoors, spyware, and supply chain attacks. 

Considering the quality concerns and possible system failures associated with companies like Huawei and ZTE, both connected to the Chinese government and military, electronic engineers are urged to prioritise encryption, access control, intrusion detection, and authentication and verification protocols in the supply chain, while collaborating with cybersecurity experts to minimise security breaches and stay ahead of emerging security threats in electronic systems. 

What challenges do Chinese components introduce to Western technologies, why is Germany taking this action now, and what can engineers learn from this?

What challenges do Chinese components introduce to Western technologies?

In recent years, the increasing dependence of Western nations on Chinese electronics has become a cause for concern, especially considering how critical infrastructure such as energy grids, transportation systems, and communication networks are all reliant on electronic components, many of which are either sourced from China or worse, wholly developed and manufactured in China. 

One of the most significant challenges is the security risk posed by Chinese electronic components, specifically microprocessors and microcontrollers. Such devices have the ability to create backdoors and spyware that can be used to steal sensitive information or sabotage critical infrastructure (something which has been proven categorically). The use of Chinese components also creates a risk of supply chain attacks, where attackers compromise the supply chain to introduce malicious components into the system. Such attacks can be difficult to detect and can cause significant damage.

Another challenge is the quality of Chinese electronic components. While many Chinese-made components from reputable manufacturers are of high quality and are used extensively in consumer electronics, the quality of components used in critical infrastructure is of utmost importance. Poor quality components can cause system failures or compromise system performance, leading to potentially catastrophic consequences, and the challenges faced with Chinese supply chains can make it difficult to fully trace the origins of parts.

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Germany's Response: Evaluating 5G Network for Chinese Components

In light of the recent military drills around Taiwan and the increasing threats posed by China, Germany has recently announced that it plans to investigate its 5G cellular networks and identify Chinese components that could pose a genuine security threat to the integrity of Germany’s cellular infrastructure. In the event of a conflict between the West and China, it is possible for China to remotely disable cellular networks via backdoors integrated into key devices, and this would have a major impact on Western infrastructure during a critical time.

While the US and UK have already introduced numerous bans on Chinese-made equipment, Germany still allows such hardware. This action makes sense when considering that Germany’s approach to peace with other nations is to try and create a bilateral dependence (such as with its dependence on Russian gas), but as the Russia-Ukraine situation demonstrated, being friendly with potential hostiles isn’t always the best course of action. Now that China has demonstrated its military and cyberwarfare capabilities, Germany recognises that their dependence on Chinese telecommunication systems may not have been the best of ideas. 

Two companies that are of specific interest are Huawei and ZTE, which both have connections with the Chinese government and military. While Germany has been cautious about singling out individual companies, there is substantial evidence of the connection between Huawei and the Chinese Security Services. 

What can engineers learn from this?

Electronic engineers can learn several valuable lessons from the growing security concerns surrounding Chinese electronic components. First and foremost, it is essential to prioritise security in the design and implementation of electronic systems. Security measures such as encryption, access control, and intrusion detection should be built into systems from the ground up to minimise the risk of security breaches.

Secondly, electronic engineers should be aware of the potential risks posed by using components from suppliers with questionable security practices. They should carefully evaluate suppliers and their supply chains to ensure that components are genuine, free from malicious code, and produced ethically.

Thirdly, electronic engineers should be aware of the potential for supply chain attacks and design systems with this in mind. This includes implementing robust authentication and verification protocols to ensure that components are not tampered with during the manufacturing or distribution process.

Fourthly, electronic engineers should stay up to date with the latest security threats and vulnerabilities and implement appropriate countermeasures. This includes keeping the software and firmware up to date, implementing regular security audits, and staying informed about emerging threats.

Lastly, electronic engineers should collaborate with security experts to design and implement secure electronic systems. By working with experts in the field of cybersecurity, electronic engineers can ensure that their systems are designed with security in mind and are resilient to the latest threats.

Thus, the growing security concerns surrounding Chinese electronic components highlight the importance of prioritising security in the design and implementation of electronic systems. Electronic engineers should be aware of the potential risks posed by using components from suppliers with questionable security practices and design systems with security in mind. By staying up to date with the latest security threats, adopting robust security measures, and collaborating with security experts, electronic engineers can ensure that their systems are secure and resilient to the latest threats and contribute to a safer global technological landscape.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.