Last weekend, the New York Times and Der Spiegel reported that the NSA has been spying on and hacking into Chinese telecommunications company Huawei since 2009 according to documents released by Edward Snowden. The Chinese response has been swift and strident—high ranking officials condemned these actions and predictably called for an end to the espionage. This disclosure strains the already complicated relationship between the U.S. and China as both giants race to ensure their own economic growth and national security.
At the same time, China may be taking baby steps towards laying down underwater internet fiber optic cables similar to the infrastructure the NSA and British spy agency GHCQ have exploited, what the NSA called their “home-field advantage.” This tactic was among the first in a series of staggered revelations from Edward Snowden in June of 2013. Through a program called Tempora, GHCQ can store communication data for three days and can store metadata for up to 30, providing GHCQ with more metadata than the NSA’s program, with less oversight. This surveillance is conducted partly with assistance from private companies, known as “intercept partners.” It is also conducted without the companies’ knowledge, however, relying on geographic proximity and national familiarity to tap major cables and core internet switches. Now Huawei appears to be developing a similar “home-field advantage” for China. Its current scale is quite small, but Huawei intends to be “one of the top three in the industry.”
It has been well-established that Huawei’s leadership has ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei was a PLA engineer, and Sun Yafang, a executive board member, previously worked at the Chinese spy agency, Ministry of State Security Communications Department. When Huawei was still a fledgling company, Sun provided Huawei with millions of dollars to keep it afloat. Since the 1990s, Huawei has repeatedly attempted to establish a foothold in the U.S. telecommunications market, with no success. The United States has remained wary of the Shenzhen-based company, and consistently thwarted Huawei’s efforts to break into the U.S. markets. Finally, at the end of 2013, Huawei announced its intention to seek other opportunities to expand. Huawei has repeatedly denied any significant ties to the Chinese military or government.
It’s not unusual for a privately-owned Chinese company to have these origins. China switched from a state-planned economy to capitalism in the early 1980s following Chairman Mao’s death. Many of the state owned enterprises simply stopped being state-planned and were privatized, while other private companies popped up on their own accord. However, the House Intelligence Committee conducted its own investigation on both Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese communications company, in 2011 and 2012, concurrent with the NSA’s spying efforts. They released an unclassified report in October of 2012, claiming the Chinese intended to use Huawei as a front to gather intelligence on both United States companies and communications infrastructure. They recommended that companies should continue to avoid any business dealings with Huawei and refrain from the use of any of its products. The language in the report was emphatic and damning, accusing the executives at Huawei of deliberately obfuscating their intentions, but it did not provide any hard evidence of wrongdoing in its unclassified version. After the New York Times report last week, William Plummer, an American executive at Huawei crowed, “The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged the Chinese are doing through us.”
This history of suspicion and concern colors reports that Huawei is expanding into new markets of core internet infrastructure. According to the Wall Street Journal, Huawei, already the second largest provider of telecom equipment behind Cisco, has begun laying down underwater cables to expand its internet reach. If civil libertarians are genuinely concerned about the NSA’s capacity to monitor people at home and abroad, they should also be at least as concerned about the prospect of companies in an illiberal state without our constitutional safeguards building the capacity to do the exact same thing half a world away.