Secretly spying on communications is something the United States’ government knows a little bit about. But today the shoe is on the other foot—with an explosive report published by the House intelligence committee accusing Chinese companies of a possible attempt to snoop on Americans as part of an elaborate espionage effort.
The result of a several-month investigation, the report focused on two firms: Huawei and ZTE. In revenue, Huawei is the world's second-biggest maker of routers, switches, and telecom equipment behind Sweden's Ericsson. ZTE ranks fifth.
The intelligence committee, which is controlled by Republicans, suggested that the companies may have ties to the Chinese government. Because Huawei and ZTE had exhibited “obstructionist behavior” by not providing the committee with documents and other requested information, it was essentially concluded that they cannot be trusted not to be in cahoots with China’s spy agencies, and thus pose a threat to national security. Huawei in particular was the subject of scathing criticism, with officials at the company accused engaging in bribery and corruption.
Despite acknowledging it had failed to conclusively prove wrongdoing, the committee’s ultimate recommendation is severe. It calls for the Committee on Foreign Investment to “block acquisitions, takeovers, or mergers involving Huawei and ZTE given the threat to U.S. national security interests.” It has also recommended U.S. government systems should not include equipment manufactured by the companies, because they “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence.” The fear is that Huawei and ZTE could be building in secret backdoors for foreign snooping—or worse, components made by the companies fitted within critical infrastructure could allow Beijing to “shut down or degrade critical national security systems in a time of crisis or war.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Huawei dismisses the report. In a statement, it fired back that the committee had employed “many rumors and speculations to prove non-existent accusations.” It added that it believed the report was an attempt to impede competition and obstruct Chinese ICT companies from entering the U.S. market. ZTE did not immediately issue a statement but has previously denied ties to the Chinese government.
The United States isn’t the only country to have questions about Chinese companies. The United Kingdom, Australia, and others have restricted how they allow Huawei to operate within their borders, politicians in New Zealand are demanding a similar approach, and France’s former defense secretary Jean-Marie Bockel in July called for Chinese network technology to be banned across Europe. The scale of the international paranoia around China reflects the extent to which Western nations are concerned about the country’s encroaching dominance. (Coincidentally, Future Tense is hosting an event in Washington, D.C., on Friday to discuss China and innovation—and whether the U.S. should feel threatened.) It’s also symptomatic of just how intense the cyber-war is becoming, with governments increasingly concerned about vulnerabilities to energy and communications networks.
It must be said, though, that the U.S. government is hardly passive victim in all of this. In the late 1990s, U.S. intelligence agencies hatched a secret plan to build backdoors into Afghanistan’s communications infrastructure. And the Obama administration has ramped up its own cyber-espionage efforts, reportedly developing sophisticated spy Trojans that have sabotaged infrastructure in Iran and covertly siphoned data from computers in a host of countries across the Middle East. So if the allegations against Huawei and ZTE have any foundation, there’s a degree of hypocrisy. Roles reversed, U.S. intelligence agencies would jump at the chance to infiltrate China’s networks. Assuming, of course, it’s not been done already.