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Huawei Busted Helping African Governments Spy On The Press, Political Opponents

Published: August 21, 2019
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While the Trump administration's war on Huawei may be largely fueled by evidence optional protectionism, that certainly doesn't mean Huawei is an ethical company. Like any good telecom and networking giant, it can routinely be found helping governments engage in behavior that's less than, say, moral. For example a damning report emerged this week in the Wall Street Journal (paywall, here's a non-paywalled video report and a fairly decent alternative take) showcasing how Huawei technicians have helped African leaders intercept encrypted transmissions of their political opponents:

"Technicians from the Chinese powerhouse have, in at least two cases, personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts, according to senior security officials working directly with the Huawei employees in these countries.

Yeah, gross. The "help" included helping government officials gain access to protected WhatsApp data from political opponents, which was then used against them:

"The Huawei engineers, identified by name in internal police documents reviewed by the Journal, used the Israeli-made spyware to penetrate Mr. Wine’s WhatsApp chat group, named Firebase crew after his band. Authorities scuppered his plans to organize street rallies and arrested the politician and dozens of his supporters."

Granted, the investigation did not turn up evidence that this spying was occurring on behalf of Beijing, or replicated in other countries like the US. Nor did it indicate that any kind of intentional flaw or backdoor in Huawei gear was used to gain access to this confidential data (the cornerstone of the effort to ban Huawei from international networks). But the report does a great job showing how most telecoms are happy to throw ethics in the toilet if it means cozying up to governments when it's profitable to do so.

In this case, Huawei's "help" even included helping African governments access the phones and Facebook pages of bloggers running a pro-opposition news site that had been previously critical of the government. The fusion of telecoms and law enforcement is obviously of particular note when that fusion results in attacks on the press, usually disguised as something else. Enter that ever-menacing but nebulously defined villain known as "fake news":

Zambia’s ruling party spokesman, Antonio Mwanza, said Huawei technicians, based inside the Zambia Information & Communications Technology Authority, or Zicta, regulator, were helping the government combat opposition news sites.

“Whenever we want to track down perpetrators of fake news, we ask Zicta, which is the lead agency. They work with Huawei to ensure that people don’t use our telecommunications space to spread fake news,” he said. Ugandan officials said that Huawei representatives have stopped attending technical briefings since the Journal submitted questions to the Chinese company. China’s Foreign Ministry said in a written statement that it is common practice for countries to cooperate on policing. “Some African countries have enthusiastically built ‘safe cities’ in order to improve the lives of their people and their business environments,” the ministry said. “To equate this positive effort with ‘surveillance’ smacks of ulterior motives.”

That said, none of this is historically unique. Telecoms are, again, routinely grafted to governments, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies in problematic ways. Just ask AT&T, who is so tightly wired to the NSA, you can't tell where the telco ends and the government begins. Similarly the US has a long history of partnering with companies to provide IT support and telecoms gear to a huge variety of dictators who then utilized that technology to help track and kill political opponents, dissidents, and even students. The press and public moral indignation at this kind of behavior tends to be... inconsistent and colored by patriotism.

And while Huawei is clearly not ethical, you'd be hard pressed to find a telecom giant that is. The US blackballing of Huawei is still based on a lot of unproven allegations of wholesale spying on Americans at China's behest, something that would drive (and has driven) US companies bat-shit crazy when the shoe is on the other foot. And while the US war on Huawei is partially based on some genuine security concerns, it's also heavily driven by a protectionist bid by companies like Cisco that simply don't want to have to compete with cheaper Chinese kit. The exact percentage breakdown of this equation has yet to be seen.

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Well, the US now has yet another reported case of espionage-related misdeeds it can point to as additional proof of why the Huawei ban should remain in place. The Chinese consumer electronics giant is under scrutiny again, this time over a Wall Street Journal report that found some of its employees helped governments in African keep tabs on political opposition using cell data to spy on their movements. Reportedly, those Huawei technicians also helped the governments track social media accounts and intercept encrypted communications.

The interim rule that bans federal agencies from purchasing or obtaining telecommunications and video surveillance services, systems or products from five Chinese companies—including Huawei—officially went into effect Tuesday. 

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Huawei had been secretly working in North Korea on various communication projects, including building and maintaining the country’s wireless network. Huawei’s work has been in direct violation of the sanctions imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons activity. The revelations are going to increase worries in the West about the trustworthiness of the Chinese communication giant, and would provide more evidence to support the conclusions of Western intelligence services that Huawei serves the interests of the Chinese government and China’s intelligence services.

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