If you’ve read the news at all over the last few months, it’s pretty likely that you have heard Huawei mentioned a lot. As the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, it’s no wonder the Chinese company has attracted a lot of attention. Unfortunately for Huawei, most of the recent attention has been negative, as more and more countries are banning the tech giant from developing their 5G networks citing threats to national security. But are these concerns legitimate or simply unfounded? Given that Huawei is bound by China’s National Intelligence Law to cooperate with state intelligence work, and China’s record of stealing American military secrets and intellectual property, it is safe to say a little healthy skepticism is not a bad thing.
Huawei has been met with strong criticism from many countries, with pushback led foremost by the United States. Although the Trump Administration has vocalized a possible Executive Order outright banning Huawei from participating in America’s 5G development, nothing concrete has been signed. Despite the lack of an outright ban, the U.S. has taken other steps to push back against the Chinese company. Last August, President Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which restricts government agencies from purchasing equipment from Huawei and another Chinese-owned tech company, ZTE Corporation. The restrictions set forth by the NDAA have also impacted American universities as several, including UC Berkley, have begun severing ties with Huawei to avoid cuts to their federal funding. Further still, the U.S. Justice Department filed two indictments against Huawei earlier this year. The first alleged that Huawei had stolen trade secrets from T-Mobile, and the second asserted that the company violated sanctions by selling equipment to Iran. But the U.S. government’s contentious relationship with Huawei is not limited to within U.S. borders.
At the heart of the U.S. effort to limit Huawei’s global reach is a fervent campaign to influence foreign allies to limit the company’s role in building their own 5G networks. Thus far, this campaign has met with mixed success. On one hand, nations like India, the U.K., and Germany have determined that the affordability of Huawei equipment and its widespread use have made outright banning the company too costly. The U.S. response has been to communicate that intelligence sharing with these international partners will decrease if Huawei builds their mobile networks. This could prove particularly damaging to Germany who relies heavily on U.S. intelligence to combat terrorism. On the other hand, countries like New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Taiwan and several others have outright banned Huawei from building their 5G networks, citing the same security concerns as the U.S. government. Considering that Huawei is one of the few 5G providers on the planet and claims to provide it cheaper than its competitors, multiple countries banning the tech giant should not be overlooked.
So what are the concerns behind the multinational effort to exclude Huawei from mobile network development? One glaring issue for many nations is the aforementioned National Intelligence Law of 2017 which requires Chinese companies to cooperate with national intelligence work. Huawei being called upon to release data to the Chinese government is not unheard of. In fact, it has become fairly commonplace, and it’s a reality even foreign companies must deal with when doing business inside China. Yahoo, Google, and Apple have all grappled with China’s demands to release private data. Adding to Huawei’s bad press is the recent discovery of a sophisticated backdoor in their Matebook laptops. The backdoor was discovered by Microsoft researchers, and Huawei has since remedied the problem, although the damage to the company’s trustworthiness continues. Huawei has also been accused of stealing information from T-Mobile, even going so far as to offer bonuses to employees who stole proprietary information. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Huawei is one of the main contractors for the “Great Firewall” the Chinese government has built to maintain a stranglehold on all information flowing in and out of its borders. Even Huawei’s origins raise questions as the founder, Ren Zhengfei, was an influential officer in China’s People’s Liberation Army. Alongside his direct ties to the government, there is a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) committee established within Huawei. It is hard to believe a company with such ties to the government cannot be influenced by the CCP. Is this really a company that can be trusted to build America’s nationwide 5G network?
There is no shortage of reasons why Americans should be concerned about the trustworthiness of Huawei and its role in the U.S.’ mobile network. Firstly, the company’s relationship with the Chinese government, whether through personal connections or obligations mandated by law, have made it vulnerable to influence by the CCP and intelligence gathering operations. It is very much within the realm of possibility that Huawei could be forced to provide the Chinese government with information gathered via Huawei-built wireless networks. This not only includes national intelligence or government sensitive information, but could also include information on critical infrastructure. Making this possibility all the more dangerous is the pervasiveness the 5G network is expected to have in our everyday lives. 5G is said to be ten to twenty times faster than 4G, and it will facilitate speedy connectivity for everything from self-driving cars to household appliances and even pace makers. Essentially, the 5G network will touch countless facets of our everyday lives. Yet the company poised to build it is under the influence of an authoritarian government that silences its own people through the imposing Great Firewall and the use of mass surveillance, and infamously steals intellectual property and military secrets from its adversaries. Ultimately, the recent U.S.-China trade war, China’s continued adventurism in the South China Sea, and a malicious cyber campaign targeting U.S. companies and government organizations at all levels could one day grow into the leveraging of Huawei’s position as a 5G provider to commit even greater acts of aggression, say disabling electrical grids across the U.S.? Even if data is encrypted, giving China the power to control the flow of information, i.e. the ability to disrupt vital communications, is a major security risk.
Chinese companies and their products play a large role in our everyday lives as international trade has made the purchase of household items made in China the norm for most Americans. While buying a pair of shoes made in China is a perfectly normal thing for an American to do, handing our every communication over to a company backed by one of America’s greatest and most capable adversaries without considering the larger risks to this country is not only naïve but short-sighted. Can we really afford to blindly trust Huawei with sole power over our 5G mobile network? My money is on no.