Image via Flickr
Some in the US have long expected that China's massive telecom company Huawei is developing tools for the Chinese government to commit cyber-espionage around the world. Now that Huawei's getting serious about its expansion into Africa, eyebrows are being raised again.
In 2012, a House committe labeled Huawei a national security threat, and the US government has accused the firm of nefarious surveillance practices many times in the last several years. That includes accusing it of helping the Iranian government monitor its citizens and quash dissent, and having ties to the Taliban. Each time the company has denied the allegations, and government investigations consistently fail to turn up any hard evidence.
But now Huawei has invested billions of dollars in Africa over the last two decades, providing affordable cell phones, internet access, and telecommunications networks to the continent. Over the last few months Huawei has closed major deals in Africa to get more areas on the grid. The company says it's bridging the digital divide, but others suspect it's wiring the continent for surveillance.
The loudest concerned party is former NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden, who has repeatedly raised warning flags about Huawei's suspected espionage. "The Chinese see themselves in a global economic competition with the United States, and they see real advantages of at least having the possibility of exploiting African networks in the future," he told Foreign Policy yesterday.
At this point, Huawei supplies back-end telecommunications equipment—wi-fi routers, mobile networks, communications hardware—to a third of the world. The thinking goes that if you build the infrastructure, you can easily build backdoors to get in and ascertain information. And not only is China laying the brick, so to speak. In many cases it's also running the networks for the African governments. If the allegations are true that Huawei provides a direct line to Beijing, it's about to have a huge peep hole into Africa.
"Even if there aren't any backdoors, which is a large hypothesis, just the Chinese state having access to the architecture of your system is a tremendous advantage for the Chinese should they want to engage in any electronic surveillance, any electronic eavesdropping," Hayden told FT.
Earlier this month, Hayden again accused Huawei of spying at the Chinese government's behest, saying he had the evidence to back it up, but the company fired back, calling the allegations "tired, unsubstantiated, and defamatory."
Hmm, government backdoor access to data through communications technology. Where would the NSA get an idea like that? It could be tempting to assume that 40 years in the CIA and NSA is making Hayden see spies around every corner, but whether or not Huawei is involved, the Chinese government has been named the world leader in cyber-espionage.
Evidence or no, the suspicions are strong enough that regulators continue to block Huawei from entering the US market, despite the manufacturer's best efforts to break in.