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