About two weeks ago, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing on “the national-security threats posed by Chinese telecom companies doing business in the United States.” The Chinese telecom companies called to account were Huawei and ZTE, each of which is keen to expand its market reach into the United States.
It is difficult to know what to believe when it comes to the charges leveled against Huawei and ZTE. The accusations against the companies, which involve their alleged capacity to conduct electronic espionage for China and their relationships with China’s government, are serious and plausible but also largely unproven.
One would hope these questions could be settled definitively and expeditiously, but this inquiry looks be a marathon rather than a sprint. Huawei and ZTE want to expand in the U.S. market, but their ambitions are thwarted by government concerns about national security. As long as the concerns remain — and they show no signs of dissipating soon — the two Chinese technology companies face limited horizons in America.
Elsewhere, too, questions have been raised. Although Huawei recently announced a significant expansion in Britain, which received the endorsement of the government there, it was excluded from participating in Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN). The company also is facing increased suspicion in India and in Canada, countries in which it already has made inroads.
Huawei and ZTE say they’re facing discrimination and protectionism in the U.S. Both seek to become bigger players globally in smartphones, and Huawei has its sights set on becoming a major force in enterprise networking and telepresence.
Obviously, Huawei and ZTE deny the allegations. Huawei has said it would be self-destructive for the company to function as an agent or proxy of Chinese-government espionage. Huawei SVP Charles Ding, as quoted in a post published on the Forbes website, had this to say:
As a global company that earns a large part of its revenue from markets outside of China, we know that any improper behaviour would blemish our reputation, would have an adverse effect in the global market, and ultimately would strike a fatal blow to the company’s business operations. Our customers throughout the world trust Huawei. We will never do anything that undermines that trust. It would be immensely foolish for Huawei to risk involvement in national security or economic espionage.
Let me be clear – Huawei has not and will not jeopardise our global commercial success nor the integrity of our customers’ networks for any third party, government or otherwise. Ever.
A Telco Legacy
Still, questions persist, perhaps because Western countries know, from their own experience, that telecommunications equipment and networks can be invaluable vectors for surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities. As Jim Armitage wrote in The Independent, telcos in Europe and the United States have been tapped repeatedly for skullduggery and eavesdropping.
In one instance, involving the tapping of 100 mobile phones belonging to Greek politicians and senior civil servants in 2004 and 2005, a Vodafone executive was found dead of an apparent suicide. In another case, a former head of security at Telecom Italia fell off a Naples motorway bridge to his death in 2006 after discovering the illegal wiretapping of 5,000 Italian journalists, politicians, magistrates, and — yes — soccer players.
No question, there’s a long history of telco networks and the gear that runs them being exploited for “spookery” (my neologism of the day) gone wild. That historical context might explain at least some of the acute and ongoing suspicion directed at Chinese telco-gear vendors by U.S. authorities and politicians.