US officials who argue Huawei can’t be trusted to play a major role in building global 5G telecommunications networks got another boost Wednesday when the Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese telecom company helped two African governments spy on dissidents.
Huawei workers who were providing telecommunications services in those nations and a “safe city” program, a network of cameras and sensors Huawei sells to city nominally aimed at improving public safety, also helped intelligence agencies crack into perceived adversaries’ encrypted communications – an opposition politician in Uganda and dissident bloggers in Zambia, the Journal’s Joe Parkinson, Nicholas Bariyo and Josh Chin report.
“The Huawei technicians worked for two days and helped us puncture through,” a senior officer at Uganda’s surveillance unit told the Journal, describing how the Chinese telecom’s workers helped the unit hack the WhatsApp and Skype communications of opposition politician and pop star Bobi Wine. They used that information to arrest Wine and dozens of his supporters, the Journal reports.
The company also helped Zambian officials shut down opposition news sites, the Journal reports. “Whenever we want to track down perpetrators of fake news, we . . . work with Huawei to ensure that people don’t use our telecommunications space to spread fake news,” a Zambian official said.
The story marks the latest in a string of revelations about Huawei doing business with repressive governments, including Iran and North Korea. And Huawei’s willingness to help authoritarian regimes spy on their citizens suggests the company would also be willing to help Chinese government digital spying operations in other nations, say the Trump administration officials who have effectively banned Huawei from playing any role in building next-generation 5G networks in the US and are lobbying allies to follow suit.
Taken together, this is yet another data point in their argument that the West and China are in a big-picture battle over the future of the Internet – and a Chinese victory will mean far more government control over communications and far less freedom and privacy for everyone else.
“A country that uses data in the way China has – to surveil its citizens, to set up credit scores and to imprison more than 1 million people for their ethnic and religious background – should give us pause about the way that country might use data in the future,” Robert Strayer, the State Department’s top official for cybersecurity issues, said during an address at a think tank earlier this year. “It would be naive to think that country, [given] the influence it has over its companies, would act in ways that would treat our citizens better than it treats its own citizens.”
Huawei said numerous details in the Journal story were incorrect. The company has steadfastly denied spying on behalf of the Chinese government and said it would not spy if Beijing asked it to – though US officials argue Chinese companies have little power to ignore such requests.
Chin described the situation in stark terms on Twitter, noting that two former “models of web freedom in Africa have embraced China’s vision of the internet.”
Kenneth Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute, called the story “further proof that Huawei is part and parcel of the [Chinese] hi-tech surveillance state governance model being sold abroad.”
The Journal report isn’t smoking-gun evidence that Huawei will help Beijing spy in nations where it has business, as the Journal reporters note.
“The Journal investigation didn’t turn up evidence of spying by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa,” the authors write. “Nor did it find that Huawei executives in China knew of, directed or approved the activities described. It also didn’t find that there was something particular about the technology in Huawei’s network that made such activities possible.”
It does, however, raise a question about whether the company’s assistance to repressive regimes represents a broader effort to export the Chinese Internet model.
“The big question has been whether Chinese companies are just doing this for the money, or whether they’re pushing a specific kind of surveillance agenda,” Steven Feldstein, a digital surveillance expert and a former Africa specialist at the State Department, told the Journal. “This would suggest it’s the latter.”
The situation is even more dangerous because 5G networks will transmit hundreds of times more data than earlier generations of wireless infrastructure. 5G will also support a vast expansion of Internet-connected devices such as smart cameras and autonomous vehicles, raising the risk of mass surveillance or even digital attacks that endanger people’s lives – say, if a digital attacker ran an autonomous car off the road.
The US government has a spotty record in convincing allies to eschew Huawei, however. Only a handful of nations, including Australia and Japan have announced they’ll totally bar the company from their 5G builds and several European nations say they’re considering letting the company play at least a limited role.
© The Washington Post 2019