Hobbling Huawei: Inside the US war on China's tech giant

In early 2018, in a complex of low-rise buildings in the Australian capital, a team of government hackers was engaging in a destructive digital war game.

The operatives – agents of the Australian Signals Directorate, the nation's top-secret eavesdropping agency – had been given a challenge. With all the offensive cyber tools at their disposal, what harm could they inflict if they had access to equipment installed in the 5G network, the next-generation mobile communications technology, of a target nation?

What the team found, say current and former government officials, was sobering for Australian security and political leaders: The offensive potential of 5G was so great that if Australia were on the receiving end of such attacks, the country could be seriously exposed.

The understanding of how 5G could be exploited for spying and to sabotage critical infrastructure changed everything for the Australians, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Mike Burgess, the head of the signals directorate, recently explained why the security of fifth generation, or 5G, technology was so important: It will be integral to the communications at the heart of a country's critical infrastructure - everything from electric power to water supplies to sewage, he said in a March speech at a Sydney research institute.

Washington is widely seen as having taken the initiative in the global campaign against Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, a tech juggernaut that in the three decades since its founding has become a pillar of Beijing's bid to expand its global influence. Yet Reuters interviews with more than two dozen current and former Western officials show it was the Australians who led the way in pressing for action on 5G; that the United States was initially slow to act; and that Britain and other European countries are caught between security concerns and the competitive prices offered by Huawei.

The Australians had long harbored misgivings about Huawei in existing networks, but the 5G war game was a turning point. About six months after the simulation began, the Australian government effectively banned Huawei, the world's largest maker of telecom networking gear, from any involvement in its 5G plans. An Australian government spokeswoman declined to comment on the war game.

After the Australians shared their findings with U.S. leaders, other countries, including the United States, moved to restrict Huawei.

The anti-Huawei campaign intensified last week, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively banned the use of Huawei equipment in U.S. telecom networks on national security grounds and the Commerce Department put limits on the firm's purchasing of U.S. technology. Google's parent, Alphabet, suspended some of its business with Huawei, Reuters reported.

Until the middle of last year, the U.S. government largely "wasn't paying attention," said retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones, who served as national security adviser to President Barack Obama. What spurred senior U.S. officials into action? A sudden dawning of what 5G will bring, according to Jones.

"This has been a very, very fast-moving realization" in terms of understanding the technology, he said. "I think most people were treating it as a kind of evolutionary step as opposed to a revolutionary step. And now that light has come on."

The Americans are now campaigning aggressively to contain Huawei as part of a much broader effort to check Beijing's growing military might under President Xi Jinping. Strengthening cyber operations is a key element in the sweeping military overhaul that Xi launched soon after taking power in 2012, according to official U.S. and Chinese military documents. The United States has accused China of widespread, state-sponsored hacking for strategic and commercial gain.

A THREAT TO CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE

If Huawei gains a foothold in global 5G networks, Washington fears this will give Beijing an unprecedented opportunity to attack critical infrastructure and compromise intelligence sharing with key allies. Senior Western security officials say this could involve cyber attacks on public utilities, communication networks and key financial centres.

In any military clash, such attacks would amount to a dramatic change in the nature of war, inflicting economic harm and disrupting civilian life far from the conflict without bullets, bombs or blockades. To be sure, China would also be vulnerable to attacks from the U.S. and its allies. Beijing complained in a 2015 defence document, "China's Military Strategy," that it has already been a victim of cyber-espionage, without identifying suspects. Documents from the National Security Agency leaked by American whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the United States hacked into Huawei's systems, according to media reports. Reuters couldn't independently verify that such intrusions took place.

However, blocking Huawei is a huge challenge for Washington and its closest allies, particularly the other members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. From humble beginnings in the 1980s in the southern Chinese boom town of Shenzhen, Huawei has grown to become a technology giant that is deeply embedded in global communications networks and poised to dominate 5G infrastructure. There are few global alternatives to Huawei, which has financial muscle – the company reported revenue for 2018 jumped almost 20 percent to more than $100 billion (79 billion pounds) – as well as competitive technology and the political backing of Beijing.

"Restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger," the company said in a statement in response to questions from Reuters. Such moves, it said, would only limit "customers in the U.S. to inferior and more expensive alternatives."

For countries that exclude Huawei there is a risk of retaliation from Beijing. Since Australia banned the company from its 5G networks last year, it has experienced disruption to its coal exports to China, including customs delays on the Chinese side. In a statement, China's foreign ministry said it treated "all foreign coal equally" and that to assert "China has banned the import of Australian coal does not accord with the facts."

Tension over Huawei is also exposing divisions in the Five Eyes group, which has been a foundation of the post-Second World War Western security architecture. During a trip to London on May 8, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a stark warning to Britain, which has not ruled out using Huawei in its 5G networks. "Insufficient security will impede the United States' ability to share certain information within trusted networks," he said. "This is exactly what China wants; they want to divide Western alliances through bits and bytes, not bullets and bombs."

Huawei's 74-year old founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a former officer in China's military, the People's Liberation Army. "Mr. Ren has always maintained the integrity and independence of Huawei," the company said. "We have never been asked to cooperate with spying and we would refuse to do so under any circumstance."

In an interview with Reuters at the company's headquarters in Shenzhen, Eric Xu, a deputy chairman, said Huawei had not allowed any government to install so-called backdoors in its equipment - illicit access that could enable espionage or sabotage - and would never do so. He said 5G was more secure than earlier systems.

"China has not and will not demand companies or individuals use methods that run counter to local laws or via installing 'backdoors' to collect or provide the Chinese government with data, information or intelligence from home or abroad," the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement in response to questions from Reuters.

Washington argues that surreptitious backdoors aren't necessarily needed to wreak havoc in 5G systems. The systems will rely heavily on software updates pushed out by equipment suppliers - and that access to the 5G network, says the United States, potentially could be used to deploy malicious code.

So far, America hasn't publicly produced hard evidence that Huawei equipment has been used for spying.

Asked whether the United States was slow to react to potential threats posed by 5G, Robert Strayer, the State Department's lead cyber policy diplomat, told Reuters that America had long been concerned about Chinese telecom companies, but that over the past year, as 5G loomed closer, "we were starting to talk more and more with our allies." Banning Huawei from 5G networks remains "an end goal," he said.

THE TECH THREAT

The West has long harbored concerns about Chinese telecom equipment. In 2012, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report concluded Chinese tech companies posed a national security threat. Huawei denounced the finding.

Despite such concerns, the U.S. government's response to the threats posed by 5G only took shape more recently.

In February 2018, Malcolm Turnbull, then prime minister of Australia, flew to Washington D.C. Even before Australia's eavesdropping agency had run its war game, Turnbull was already raising red flags in Washington. A former technology entrepreneur, he believed 5G presented significant risks and wanted to press allies to act against Huawei.

"He was warning about how important 5G networks would be and the security risks we all needed to think about around countries that had capability, form and intent, as well as coercive laws," a senior Australian source told Reuters.

A spokesman for Turnbull declined to comment.

Turnbull and his advisers met U.S. officials, including Kirstjen Nielsen, then U.S. secretary of homeland security, and Michael Rogers, then head of the U.S. National Security Agency, the U.S. signals-intelligence operation. The Australians said they believed Beijing could compel Huawei to do its bidding and that this posed a threat should tensions with China rise in the future, said two of the Australian officials familiar with the meeting.

The U.S. officials were receptive to the Australian message, but imposing restrictions on the world's largest maker of mobile network gear didn't appear to be a high priority, according to the two Australian officials. "They didn't share our concern with the same urgency," said one.

Rogers declined to comment. A Department of Homeland Security official did not elaborate on the meeting, but said the agency works closely with Australia on security issues and that "China will continue to use cyber espionage and bolster cyber-attack capabilities to support its national security priorities."

5G technology is expected to deliver a huge leap in the speed and capacity of communications. Downloading data may be up to 100 times faster than on current networks.

But 5G isn't only about faster data. The upgrade will see an exponential spike in the number of connections between the billions of devices, from smart fridges to driverless cars, that are expected to run on the 5G network. "It's not just that there will be more people with multiple devices, but it will be machines talking to machines, devices talking to devices – all enabled by 5G," said Burgess, the Australian Signals Directorate chief, in his March address.

This configuration of 5G networks means there are many more points of entry for a hostile power or group to conduct cyber warfare against the critical infrastructure of a target nation or community. That threat is magnified if an adversary has supplied equipment in the network, U.S. officials say.

Huawei said in its statement that the company does "not control in any way the networks in which our equipment is deployed by our clients. The US and Australian allegations are fanciful and are not rooted in any evidence at all."

In July 2018, Britain delivered a blow to Huawei. A government-led panel that includes senior intelligence officials said it was no longer fully confident it could manage national security risks posed by the Chinese telecom equipment giant.

That panel oversees the work of a laboratory that was set up by the British government in 2010 and is funded by Huawei to vet the company's equipment used in the UK. The facility was established because even then Huawei was perceived as a security risk. The oversight panel said serious problems it had identified with Huawei's engineering processes "exposed new risks in the UK telecommunication networks and long-term challenges in mitigation and management."

That report was a "bombshell," shaping how the Americans viewed the Huawei 5G risk, said one U.S. official.

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