Telecommunications

Huawei, the US ban, and links to Chinese spying explained

What evidence is there to prove Huawei is planting backdoor access into its equipment so data can be accessed by Chinese intelligence agencies?
What evidence is there to prove Huawei is planting backdoor access into its equipment so data can be accessed by Chinese intelligence agencies?
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What evidence is there to prove Huawei is planting backdoor access into its equipment so data can be accessed by Chinese intelligence agencies?
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What evidence is there to prove Huawei is planting backdoor access into its equipment so data can be accessed by Chinese intelligence agencies?

On May 15, 2019, US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, signing an executive order banning US companies and government agencies from utilizing telecommunications equipment that pose a risk to national security. While the initial announcement did not mention Huawei by name, members of congress didn't hesitate to reference the massive Chinese company directly.

Soon after Trump's announcement the US Commerce Department added Huawei to what is referred to as the Entity List. Covering everything from businesses to individuals, placement on the list essentially bans an entity from doing business in the United States. There is little doubt the initial executive order was primarily geared at restricting Huawei's ability to do business in the United States.

Within days of the government action, the repercussions for Huawei began to hit hard. Google quickly ended its business dealings with the Chinese company, meaning Huawei would have no early access to the Android ecosystem, ultimately locking its smartphones out of the Google Play Store and apps like Gmail and Maps. Intel, Broadcom and Qualcomm all reportedly ceased business with Huawei, cutting off the supply of hardware fundamental to several of the company's major products.

These dramatic events were the culmination of years of suspicion surrounding Huawei's ties to the Chinese government. For well over a decade the company has been accused by governments around the world of working with Chinese national spy agencies. But what evidence is there to back up these serious claims, and what are the repercussions of this new US Huawei ban?

Long standing ties

Huawei's deep ties with the Chinese government go all the way back to the company's founding in 1987. Ren Zhengfei, Huawei's founder, has long been deeply connected with the Chinese government, working as an engineer for the People's Liberation Army before moving into commercial electronics in 1983. Through the 1990s Huawei demonstrated strong ties with the Chinese government, and by 1996 it was labeled a "national champion" following major contracts to construct the country's national telecommunications network. Alongside this, experts have claimed the growth of the company has been financially supported by Chinese state agencies – an allegation the company has consistently denied.

For years Huawei has been beset by international legal issues. From accusations of intellectual property theft, to major international sanction violations, the company inarguably has a messy record of operating on the fringes of global law. Perhaps the most dramatic development was the arrest of Huawei's Chief Financial Officer in late 2018. Meng Wanzhou, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, was arrested in Canada on charges of bank fraud at the request of the US.

Wanzhou is currently entrenched in a Canadian court battle as the United States attempts to extradite her, while her lawyers, and the Chinese government, claim the entire exercise is simply an attempt by Western governments to stifle the success of Huawei's international business dealings.

Unrelated to Wanzhou's legal troubles, and the company's other criminal and civil problems, many countries around the globe are slowly introducing bans on Huawei technology based on a single allegation ... that the company's independence and integrity has been compromised by the Chinese government and its technology is being used to spy on other countries.

Is there any actual evidence of spying?

Over the last decade these spying allegations have consistently hounded Huawei, however, no clear evidence has ever been presented to prove there are backdoors or surveillance spyware installed on any Huawei devices. An expansive 18-month security review from US government agencies was reported to have concluded in 2012 that there was no evidence Huawei was working with the Chinese government to spy on US citizens.

Experts working on the US government review at the time suggested that, while no singular "smoking gun" could be found proving Huawei equipment had been compromised, its systems were "riddled with holes." These coding errors and vulnerabilities were found to make some of Huawei's equipment more open to being hacked, however, no one could establish whether these were simple software mistakes or explicit backdoors left open for espionage reasons.

For some, questions over how secure Huawei equipment actually is, are merely questions of potential. Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have already banned Huawei equipment from forthcoming 5G infrastructure roll-outs, claiming the risks for 5G network gear to be compromised through software updates make security evaluations incredibly difficult. This idea that the security risk inherent to Huawei's equipment is one based on possibility rather than actuality is frequently raised by US lawmakers and experts.

"This is not about finding "backdoors" in current Huawei products – that's a fool's errand," said Democrat senator Mark Warner recently to The Verge. "Software reviews of existing Huawei products are not sufficient to preclude the possibility of a vendor pushing a malicious update that enables surveillance in the future. Any supposedly safe Chinese product is one firmware update away from being an insecure Chinese product."

Ban vs. better transparency

However, not every Western government is jumping on the Huawei prohibition bandwagon. Literally hours after Trump's recent executive order that moved toward a total US Huawei ban, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed his country would not be proceeding with similar actions, despite months of rumors his government was moving in that direction.

"I think launching a trade or tech war vis-a-vis any country is not appropriate," said Macron. "First, it's not best way to defend national security, second it's not best way to the defend the ecosystem."

Several European Union reviews are currently underway examining security procedures to accompany 5G infrastructure roll-outs, and despite significant lobbying from US diplomats calling for the EU to institute an outright ban, many union leaders are suggesting the better way forward will be to establish clear safeguards.

Francis Dinha, CEO of OpenVPN, agrees a ban is not the solution, despite Huawei potentially being a security risk. Dinha suggests the way forward is better, more transparent network security, as there will always be potential for core equipment to be compromised.

"Rather than relying on our network to be secure, we ought to seriously consider building an overlay secure virtual network across the 5G infrastructure that could provide end-to-end security, controlled and managed by the 5G network operators," Dinha explains.

So what happens now?

Although currently there has been no clear evidence showing Huawei equipment contains security "backdoors" allowing Chinese government access, rumors still swirl that evidence may exist. Just over the last month several stories have appeared suggesting the truth is out there. One story alleged the CIA has proof Huawei received funding from Chinese state security agencies, while another revealed the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD has discovered an elusive Huawei backdoor in a major local telecom firm. However, both stories are still very much unverified, and so far every significant investigation into Huawei's association with Chinese intelligence has found no explicit evidence to solidify the years of allegations.

It is also difficult to separate this latest major US move from its ongoing trade war with China. Last year Huawei overtook Apple to become the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world. This happened alongside the company revealing it was stepping out of the general US consumer tech market. So while a US Huawei ban is not particularly relevant to the company's global market share in smartphones, laptops and telecommunications equipment, it may affect the its ability to produce that tech for its international market.

These problems are compounded by the loss of access to US-built software, specifically that from Google, which is likely to influence the future purchasing decisions of consumers around the globe. Google's move to suspend business operations with Huawei to comply with the US government ban has sparked confusion amongst owners of existing devices worried they would no longer have access to updates for Android OS, and Google services such as Maps, YouTube and the Play store. Both Google and Huawei have sought to allay fears by saying existing devices wouldn't be affected, and yesterday the US Commerce Department awarded Huawei a license allowing it to purchase US goods until August 19, giving mobile device owners time to access software updates and telecom providers time to seek alternatives.

But once that date passes, owners of existing devices face the prospect of not being able to access any future updates, potentially making their devices less secure, while future devices will likely not have access to the above mentioned Google services through dedicated apps.

There are rumors Huawei has long expected this potential scenario, so it has been developing an alternative operating system for its smartphones. But what does this mean for its burgeoning laptop market? Its sleek MateBook has been becoming increasingly impressive over its last few generations, yet this new US ban would essentially disallow Microsoft from supplying Huawei with a Windows OS.

It is unclear how all this will ultimately play out. More investigations will roll out, trying to uncover the elusive, and possibly non-existent, piece of evidence to finally show whether Huawei is conspiring with the Chinese government. The EU will decide whether it will block Huawei from the European Union. The repercussions of the US ban will not only harm Huawei but a raft of other American businesses that sell goods to the massive company.

This recent escalation in the conflict by the United States does not bring us closer to ending these tensions, but until there is clear evidence Huawei is a company not to be trusted, all current prohibitions are ultimately based on potential future scenarios and not publicly available facts.

15 comments
Fletcher
This article doesn't mention anywhere that Huawei hardwired a microchip onto server motherboards to spy on anyone (companies, governments, people) who bought the servers without their permission. That is the smoking gun, hard core proof and a fact, not a coding error, or a simple software mistake. If that’s not proof I don’t know what is. If your interested in really reading about the problem Bloomberg wrote a good article back in October last year about this but there have been others written since. ( link attached: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-10-04/the-big-hack-how-china-used-a-tiny-chip-to-infiltrate-america-s-top-companies ). The fact is the Chinese government like most governments feel they can spy on their people without mercy. However, the difference is they hardwired the devices they sold (instead of leaving software backdoors) and that’s a big NO NO because you can’t just close these doors, you must replace the door. The US had to replace 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of these motherboards. Some of the motherboards were fixed, most were replaced and in a lot of cases the servers were replaced entirely.
f8lee
Of course, in situations like this, where national security issues are involved, the lack of evidence that has been made public does not necessarily imply there is actually no evidence. But if the NSA, say, has discovered something egregious via means that they don't want the Chinese (or other bad actors) to know about, then not telling the public (and even the vote-panderers in government) makes sense - no different than when the Brits broke the enigma code in WWII but allowed a troop carrier to be sunk by a U-Boat in order to prevent the Nazis from realizing enigma had been broken.
bobpiazza
Thanks for the clarification. Appears to me that the Muller report is much more damaging than the case against Huawei
George Sidman
Thanks for a more clear headed review of the Huawei boogeyman. To clarify further, it makes no difference who provides the hardware. Software that hijacks packets and sends them to whomever can be planted on any router, switch, etc. Any sensitive information worth protecting currently moves, or should move, over the Internet fully encrypted. Hijacked packets that are encrypted are of no use to anyone. This attack on Huawei has no technical substance at all, which is why most other countries are not concerned. Huawei is simply offering better equipment at a better price. This is a US-driven xenophobic trade war gambit at best, and will be ultimately damaging to yet another aspect of global commerce.
misty45
Evil China might spy with insecure tech. Ban them all. You know they aren’t even Christians? Trump knows. He smart. What trade war?
vectornull
I did not see any mention of attempts to export technology to Iran, as per the Addition of Entities to the Entity List posted on 5/21/19. Also, the temporary license is effective through August 19, not April 19.
rude.dawg
Essentially, risk management is the process of minimising or mitigating risk. It starts with the identification and evaluation of risk followed by optimal use of resources to monitor and minimise the same. Huawei has been identified as a risk. It now needs to be analysed, evaluated, monitored, reviewed and treated accordingly. https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/how-australia-led-the-us-in-its-global-war-against-huawei-20190522-p51pv8.html
christopher
So, it's exactly the same as every other tech company, except that it's not American? They make phones and laptops that look exactly like Apple and Microsoft ones... Reminds me of Megaupload, where they destroyed an NZ company doing the exact same thing as Dropbox (an American company)... This is nothing to do with spying [not least because nobody's ever found them doing that]. It's simple commercial protectionism. Maybe also some payback for China banning USA companies? Everyone in the world knows (and with plenty of evidence thanks to all the leakers) that the US are the most blatant and pervasive spies of them all...
grtblu
Ever since the US has been spying on world wide communications of all types for decades. For the US to claim that others "may" be doing so is hypocrisy cubed. No proof, only bloviation from the most ignorant POTUS in history. Newton law "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" applies. The Chinese, once happy to purchase US technology have lost trust in it and have been developing their own OS and hardware. The net effect is that one can expect the Chinese to eventually market and sell their OS and hardware worldwide competing with and against the US products they once bought and incorporated. So when it's over, Google, Qualcomm, and others will have less market share and a new and powerful competitor thanks to the blow hard in the blight house.
MattBD
Thank goodness the NSA of peace loving America will still have access to all Microsoft encrypted data other than that protected by special code used for example by the UK government to protect it from "our special relatives". Trumps Chinese spying any day. Has CISCO or Apple code been subject to the same (valuable) inspection? You guessed right! I wonder why not?
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