I generally try to avoid taking sides in political disputes like the one involving US accusations that Chinese telecoms equipment from Huawei could pose a national security threat. But in the case of the latest revelations about US government spying on Huawei, I do think that Washington should at least discuss the results of its efforts to find evidence of a covert relationship between Huawei and the Chinese military. At the same time, I find Beijing’s condemnation of the snooping a bit insincere, as I’m quite sure that China and most other nations also engage in similar electronic spying. (English article)
One of the bottom lines in all this is that many kinds of people engage in electronic spying, and all have different agendas. Some people do it for fun, while many do it for economic gain. Most governments also engage in such spying to understand what other governments, individuals and companies are doing and thinking.
Such intelligence gathering has occurred for centuries, and the only thing that’s really changed over the years are the methods. It’s quite logical to focus on electronic systems for intelligence gathering in the modern era where so much communication occurs electronically, and it’s really the responsibility of governments and companies to protect themselves by securing their own systems.
With all that background in mind, it’s not a huge surprise to learn that new documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden show the US National Security Administration (NSA) conducted extensive spying on Huawei. (English article) What’s more, the NSA can’t really be condemned for its behavior if it really thought its snooping would help to enhance US national security.
Some could even argue that Huawei should be criticized for having systems that were so easily penetrated by an outsider. That’s especially relevant in this case, since Huawei is building telecoms networks for many phone companies around the world, and thus should understand the importance of network security.
But all that said, what I find a bit difficult to understand following these latest reports is the US view that Huawei’s equipment poses a security threat due to ties between the company and Beijing. The latest reports don’t specify if the NSA actually found any connections between Huawei and the Chinese military. But the broader implication based on these reports, combined with publicly announced results of an earlier probe, seem to imply that the US never found strong evidence of such a link.
Huawei has asserted all along that there’s no such link, and I personally haven’t seen any reason to believe that such ties exists. Much of the speculation comes from the fact that Huawei’s media-shy founder Ren Zhengfei was a former military engineer before he left to start up his telecoms company in Shenzhen in the 1990s.
While I have my doubts about any connection between the Chinese military and Huawei, I do also think the US national security concerns aren’t completely unfounded. That’s because the Chinese government is famous for interfering in the affairs of all companies, both state-owned and private. Thus even if the government has no direct connection with Huawei now, there’s nothing to keep it from forcing its way into the company at a future date.
All this brings us back to my initial point, which is that the US should really come forward and say what, if anything, it discovered about Huawei’s ties with the Chinese military. If it found no strong evidence of any link, it should say so, which at least would vindicate Huawei’s repeated claims that no such ties exist. That would mark an important milestone for Huawei and private Chinese companies in general, in their ongoing effort to show the outside world that they can operate independently of government support and interference.
Bottom line: The US should come out and say whether its snooping on Huawei uncovered any ties with the Chinese military, and explain why it feels the company’s equipment poses a security risk.