According to a Wall Street Journal report, the U.S. government officials are claiming Huawei, a phone and telecommunications company with ties to the Chinese government, has the ability to spy on users of mobile phone networks employing Huawei equipment. The claim comes after years of accusations from the U.S. government and repeated denials from Huawei.
While Huawei is one of the largest sellers of phones in the world, its original business was building telecommunication networks. However, the U.S. has been wary of allowing Huawei equipment to be incorporated into U.S. telecommunications networks. A 2012 Congressional report effectively banned Huawei from selling the equipment and strongly discouraged U.S. phone companies from selling Huawei phones in their stores.
The U.S. wariness comes from concerns regarding Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government—its founder is former Chinese military—and good old-fashioned protectionism. The company has been well positioned provided equipment for the roll-out of affordable and fast 5G networks.
“There is no question in my mind that the extra scrutiny Huawei has been under as of late has to do with the political environment between China and the U.S. as well as the high-stakes around AI and 5G,” Lynette Ong, associate professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, told me via email last year. Ong specializes in Chinese politics and political economy.
Last year the U.S. and Huawei traded barbs over the U.S.’s concerns and Huawei’s alleged spying, fraud, and violation of international sanctions against Iran. The furor led to both Australia and New Zealand banning the use of Huawei equipment in telecommunication networks.
However some of the largest telecommunication networks in the world, including ones owned by U.K. based Vodafone, and the German Deutsche Telekom AG, currently incorporate Huawei equipment.
U.S. officials now claim Huawei has included backdoors into the equipment that effectively allows it to access the same data law enforcement can access. Typically these backdoors, known as “lawful interception interfaces” are used exclusively by law enforcement who must provide warrants to gain access. The equivalent of the old school wiretap, these lawful interception interfaces gives the user of the interface access to any data transmitted over the network, including phone calls and text messages.
Naturally, equipment providers aren’t supposed to have access and are supposed to build the equipment in such a way that they can’t gain access down the line. But the U.S. accuses Huawei of doing just that.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. took its latest proof to closed-door meetings with officials and telco companies in the U.K. and Germany. A confidential memo written by the German Foreign Office and acquired by the Wall Street Journal characterizes the proof presented in the meeting as a “smoking gun.”
However publically these companies and officials are a little more reticent. Vodafone denied any equipment maker could access its network in that manner, while Deutsche Telekom AG told the WSJ a German company had developed its lawful interception interface and thus Huawei couldn’t access it.
But it isn’t necessarily up to the corporations who want to continue to use well designed and super cheap equipment built by Huawei. The German legislature is planning to vote on a bill in the coming weeks that could give Huawei the ability to provide equipment for Germany’s new 5G networks.
The bill has become a point of contention between Germany and China, with China threatening “consequences” if it should happen. The revelation of the U.S.’s still unseen “smoking gun” certainly has interesting timing.