Washington sees no distinction between Huawei and Beijing, top US cybersecurity official says

Meaghan Tobin

Robert Strayer, a top United States official in charge of cybersecurity, on Thursday said Washington did not see a distinction between Chinese technology giant Huawei and China’s government.

Speaking at a briefing in London, two officials – Robert Strayer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for cyber and international communications, and Ajit Pai, the chairman for the federal communications commission – urged countries to adopt a “risk-based security framework” to scrutinise vendors and companies in the foundational stages of 5G network deployment.

“There is no effective distinction between the company and the government in China,” Strayer said. “That raises very serious concerns for us.”

5G is the next generation of mobile technology that can improve the speed of the internet to a level that many believe would revolutionise the way people live, because its greater connectivity would allow thousands of appliances to be managed simultaneously.

Robert Strayer has warned Britain that if it were to incorporate Huawei into its system, London’s access to American intelligence would be cut off. Photo: Bloomberg

Thursday’s speech in Britain is the latest push by the Trump administration to warn world leaders against adopting 5G technology by Huawei, the world’s second-largest smartphone maker and 5G leader, in their infrastructure.

While countries such as Australia and New Zealand have said they would follow the US’ lead in blocking Huawei’s products from their next-generation mobile networks, Britain has reportedly said it might allow the Chinese telecoms giant into the noncore parts of its 5G network.

In April, Strayer warned Britain in a separate speech in London that if it were to incorporate Huawei into its system, London’s access to American intelligence would be cut off.

A spokesman for then-prime minister Theresa May replied: “Our position has always been that where national security concerns arise in any foreign investment, the government will assess the risks and consider what course of action to take.”

China's ambassador in London then encouraged Britain to resist pressure from other nations, adding Huawei had a “good track record on security”.

There is no effective distinction between the company and the government in China. That raises very serious concerns for us.

Robert Strayer, US deputy assistant secretary of state for cyber and international communications

Huawei’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In May, the Trump administration added the Chinese tech company to an “Entity List” that effectively prohibited it from buying American components. The administration feared Beijing could compel Huawei to give up sensitive US information and technology, threatening national security.

“Huawei has attempted to be more transparent, hiring Western auditing firms to review the firm’s finances, for example,” said Paul Triolo, head of the geotechnology practice at Eurasia Group.

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But “US government officials have raised valid concerns over the transparency of a company that plays such a pivotal role globally in mobile infrastructure.”

Multiple pending US lawsuits accuse Huawei of espionage, intellectual property theft, trade secret theft and violating US laws by doing business with Iran, a country under US sanctions.

Then in December, Canadian authorities arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, a daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, at the US’ request.

Last month, Huawei USA Chief Security Officer Andy Purdy told the South China Morning Post that “this focus on China, and the focus on Huawei in particular, are not going to make the world safer”.

“We believe there are mechanisms that can be put in place to provide assurance to the US government, something similar to risk mitigation programmes that European companies such as Nokia and Ericsson have in place with the US,” Purdy said.

Strayer said on Thursday that transparency was essential in evaluating a 5G vendor’s security. Other than the 1 per cent of Huawei owned by founder Ren Zhengfei, the remaining 99 per cent of the company “is owned by a trade union committee, which is effectively the government itself”, he said.

Huawei employees have been complicit in exporting the surveillance state to other countries around the world

Robert Strayer

In particular, Strayer warned that Huawei and its fellow Chinese telecoms firm ZTE were under the potential influence of the Chinese government and could be required to comply with mandates of the country’s intelligence and security services.

He also accused Huawei of being used to suppress internet freedoms, and said the company was complicit in the surveillance deployed in Xinjiang against its large Uygur population, as well as selling technology internationally for surveillance purposes.

Australian government advised India to ban Huawei from 5G

“Huawei employees have been complicit in exporting the surveillance state to other countries around the world,” Strayer said.

“With that kind of intent to deprive people of their fundamental human rights, as well as the history of intellectual property thefts … it’s quite clear that China will use any capabilities it has to further its goals in this area when it has the further capabilities of a 5G network.”

Ajit Pai, the chairman for the federal communications commission, echoes Strayer in urging countries to look closely at vendors and companies engaged in the foundational stages of 5G network deployment. Photo: AFP

Eurasia’s Triolo said “there is no conclusive evidence that some level of the Chinese government ‘owns’ parts of Huawei”, adding that “even a recent academic study could only speculate on this issue, and offered no evidence of actual ownership being held by any Chinese government entity”.

“The real issue in my view,” Triolo said, “is how the company makes business decisions. And there is a lot of documentation about how the company is managed and operated that suggests that it is run as a commercial company, with no evidence of government interference in its operations.”

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Strayer and Pai reiterated the cybersecurity principles that more than 30 countries had agreed to this April in Prague. They said Huawei had failed to meet those standards on the basis of its history of corrupt practices and failure to comply with intellectual property theft and export control regulations.

“Because there is no adequate way to protect or monitor software updates, the only way to truly ensure we have software secure for the future [is to] rely on trusted relationships,” Strayer said.

“With countries that do include untrusted vendors in their networks, we’re going to have to reassess how we’re sharing information,” he said, repeating a previously issued US warning.

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