Latest Huawei 'Smoking Gun' Still Doesn't Prove Global Blackball Effort's Primary Justification

from the ill-communication dept

We’ve noted a few times now how the protectionist assault against Huawei hasn’t been supported by much in the way of public evidence. As in, despite widespread allegations that Huawei helps China spy on Americans wholesale, nobody has actually been able to provide any hard public evidence proving that claim. That’s a bit of a problem when you’re talking about a global blackballing effort. Especially when previous investigations as long as 18 months couldn’t find evidence of said spying, and many US companies have a history of ginning up security fears simply because they don’t want to compete with cheaper Chinese kit.

That said, a new report (you can find the full thing here) dug through the CVs of many Huawei executives and employees, and found that a small number of “key mid-level technical personnel employed by Huawei have strong backgrounds in work closely associated with intelligence gathering and military activities.” This full Twitter thread by the study’s author is also worth a read:

Yes, Huawei’s claims that it had absolutely no meaningful ties to state intelligence services has always likely been bullshit. And many of the connections between the military and intel services and these employees are fairly obvious. Some employees went so far as clearly indicating that they worked for the government and Huawei simultaneously. 11 employees attended a Chinese a military academy that also researches ?information warfare,” though the report doesn’t indicate if they actually participated in said research.

That said, the paper isn’t the smoking gun it’s being covered as on some fronts. The paper clearly notes that while some employees may have flitted between government and intel services and Huawei, actually connecting them to any hostile actions or spying in the US or UK wasn’t possible. Like here in the paper, for example:

Third, in addition to titular and experiential activity that ties Jingguo to state security activities, it is possible to tie work from his CV to reported cases of Huawei information gathering. It is not possible to directly tie his routers or his code to the specific products in question, but based upon the timeline, work described, and geographic responsibility, there is a clear match with work described on Huawei activity in Italy and network security with code being injected that would allow Huawei to access the network and traffic.

So, yes, some folks in the Chinese military and intelligence services have also worked at Huawei. And many likely used those experiences to help the company craft surveillance technologies likely used in China. Given intelligence agencies around the world routinely cultivate, implant, or recruit folks in industry, this kind of cross germination really isn’t all that surprising.

That said, these kinds of connections aren’t that uncommon in the US or UK, either. AT&T, for example, is effectively bone grafted to the NSA at this juncture. AT&T’s ties to the NSA are so total, you’d be fairly hard-pressed to point out where AT&T ends and the NSA begins, especially if you’ve spent any time reading about the allegations by whistleblowers like Mark Klein, or AT&T and the NSA’s often shady surveillance buildings peppered across the country. AT&T’s employees are embedded with the US government. The relationship is so uniform, AT&T employees frequently act as intel analysts.

Would we be cool then with, say, overseas companies banning AT&T from global markets given obviously close ties to US intelligence? While there’s little doubt that China engages in some horrific behaviors when it comes to censorship, surveillance, torture, and worse, the narrative du jour continues to be that when the US or UK does this sort of stuff (like that time the NSA hacked into Huawei to backdoor gear) a patriotic press deems it “good.” But when the Chinese do it, it requires massive wholesale blackballing efforts and endless pearl clutching. On this front, the press often lets patriotism muddy the waters.

And again, the Huawei blackballing effort (which some smaller companies say will actually hurt them) is based largely on the claim that Huawei routinely spies on Americans specifically, something there’s still no clear evidence of. The question also needs to be asked: If you don’t trust Huawei, who is OK to trust? Do we trust Cisco, whose hardware has been intercepted by the NSA in transit to aid US surveillance efforts? Do we trust AT&T? Do we trust anybody? Are these standards applied evenly across companies and countries? Is this concern being extended to the Chinese gear in the internet of broken things, your router, or smart fridge? If Chinese gear is in everything, why stop with just Huawei?

There are plenty of folks arguing that you can be concerned about Huawei’s potential security issues without engaging in ham-fisted protectionism. Folks argue that there are better, systemic approaches to improving internet security that don’t require the sort of herky-jerky, protectionist policy hyperventilation of the Trump administration. But these voices have pretty routinely been drowned out by those driven more by patriotism or profits than any genuine, measured interest in a consistently fact-based approach to better security.

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Comments on “Latest Huawei 'Smoking Gun' Still Doesn't Prove Global Blackball Effort's Primary Justification”

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Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

many US companies have a history of ginning up security fears simply because they don’t want to compete with cheaper Chinese kit.

Well, why should they have to?

If it were honest competition, I’d totally agree with you. But we’re talking about Chinese production, which has a long and well-documented history of creating things at rock-bottom prices by massive corner-cutting, human rights violations, environmental destruction, and industrial espionage. They "compete" by engaging in business practices that are illegal in the USA for a multitude of good reasons.

Why should any US company be forced to compete on an unlevel playing field against a competitor with immoral business practices that, were the company to attempt to duplicate over here, would make them into criminals?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think that’s where we run into problems here. Chinese underhanded competition uses different techniques than American underhanded competition. American methods are illegal in China, and Chinese methods are illegal in the US.

But I think you’re right that the US needs to move to a "we cannot import products that weren’t produced in at least loose compliance with our labor code" way of doing things.

This is a significantly different mindset than the current "products flagged up as being created in contravention with our labor code will result in their parent companies being fined" world we live in. Other places see that as bribery and the cost of doing business, not an incentive to change their labor practices.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because nothing Huawei is doing is anything different than similar device manufacturers whose devices are made…in China. The questions at the end of the article kinda need to be inserted here. Huawei’s ban is based on security fears present in a large number of other devices we accept into our life. And the evidence of security issues is weaker than for US manufacturers. You have introduced the protectionist arguments cloaked in paper-thin safety concerns and those arguments also apply to plenty of devices we let into our home everyday. Half of those devices are made by the same factories to the same spec just with the special insignia stamped on it.

Why should any US company be forced to compete on an unlevel playing field against a competitor with immoral business practices that, were the company to attempt to duplicate over here, would make them into criminals?

I mean, I don’t know why AT&T is in business either, but we aren’t banning them from the world stage.

Oh you mean Huawei? Citation needed: Assumes Facts not in evidence. Seriously, that’s the whole point of the article series – there is no evidence that Huawei is doing anything worse than AT&T and Verizon.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

there is no evidence that Huawei is doing anything worse than AT&T and Verizon.

Actually, there’s evidence that Huawei is doing different bad things than AT&T and Verizon. Namely: they sell tech to Iran via shell companies, they have in the past stolen IP from US companies, and they can sell their telco product cheaper than US companies can on the International market.

AT&T on the other hand just passes everything through the NSA and is actively part of the CIA’s spying operations globally. Verizon’s in the business of compiling and selling data metrics to governmental and military orgs in the US.

Not the same thing at all 😉

Bosyber (profile) says:

Re: Re:

UM, didn’t the USA gain industrial power in that way in the past? It has been a likely path for other countries in the past too. ones. Ones established, making an effort to ensure everyone, especially upcoming countries follow your rules, is a clear way to delay new competition.

That does not mean that the complaint is invalid, but it does show it is not so clear cut.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Then they should cite such reasons insyead of inventing bullshit. On the other hand, US-based companies have done the same exact things here and abroad since the nation’s founding. A lot of that stopped here thanks to regulations and unions… at least for a while.

I would hardly defend many of the practices in China, but claiming the States are better is nearly pure propaganda with tiny sprinklings of truth.

TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why should any US company be forced to compete on an unlevel playing field against a competitor with immoral business practices that, were the company to attempt to duplicate over here, would make them into criminals?

US companies leveled the playing field by simply moving the activities "over there" where they’re legal. Why else do you think so many of the components used to build gear are manufactured in China or other Asian countries? US companies can make things cheaper by outsourcing the actual work to countries without US labor laws, then import and badge the results and pretend they weren’t made overseas.

Which is why the whole "industrial espionage" argument should be dropped. China didn’t need to engage in industrial espionage to get the tech. US companies handed Chinese companies all the detailed technical and manufacturing information and taught the Chinese everything about the technology for the express purpose of enabling China to manufacture it. The outrage is over the fact that China is manufacturing it for their own use rather than solely for the benefit of US companies, no more and no less.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’ve addressed this with you before.

There are many valid reasons to criticize the Chinese government and Chinese manufacturing.

But that’s not the argument our intelligence agencies are making. They’re claiming that Huawei is installing nefarious backdoors on behalf of the Chinese government.

While I certainly wouldn’t put it past either Huawei or the Chinese government to do something like that, the intelligence agencies haven’t provided satisfactory evidence that this is the case.

There’s an honest argument to make against doing business with Huawei and other Chinese companies. Accusing the company of spying, without providing any evidence, is not that honest argument.

To repeat what I said in April:

If you want to criticize Huawei for Chinese labor practices, great; I’m right there with you. If you want to criticize Huawei because it’s been accused of sinister surveillance activities, well, I’d say wait until somebody produces better evidence than anything we’ve seen so far.

Wyrm (profile) says:

But these voices have pretty routinely been drowned out by those driven more by patriotism or profits than any genuine, measured interest in a consistently fact-based approach to better security.

Worse yet, the so-called "patriots" don’t care about security at all. They only care about taking down an "enemy", be it real, imagined or self-crafted.
They use the word "security", interchangeably with others such as "piracy", "terrorism", "communism"… without any regard to their definition, only interested in the impact the word has on the public at large.
Some of these words now have completely twisted meanings, if any at all, left in their radical supporters’ minds.

The example in this case, "security".
For us, it’s about you protecting your devices and data from being accessed by someone you didn’t allow. (Short version, obviously)
For them, it’s a lot more about then accessing any system or data they want, whatever the cost… particularly if it’s at our expenses… but – funny enough – not at their individual expenses. They have this concept of "sacrifice" that I hate the most as being the peak of hypocrisy: no price is too high to pay, unless they have to pay it themselves.
And in the Huawei case, it’s not even that much. It’s just an empty word used to justify taking down competition.

virusdetected (profile) says:

The two other providers of telephone switching equipment...

Are foreign-owned companies, too. A careful examination of their executive rosters by someone with the appropriate (intell) skills would be rather revealing. Ericsson, the primary vendor of switching equipment in the U.S., operator of the Sprint and T-Mobile networks, and operator of two databases critical to telco operations, previously raised some suspicion in the intelligence community (second hand information, but from a knowledgeable source). We could just ban them all, close down the Internet, abandon cell phones, and return to…writing letters or meeting for lunch. While we’re at it, we also need to worry about who’s putting logic in automobiles, so perhaps we should outlaw those and return to horse-drawn carriages. Political boundaries don’t make any sense in a world built on the Internet. It would, of course, make much more sense to actually deal with the security issues directly, e.g., make those networks secure. Not any easy task, as any network engineer will explain, but what’s obviously necessary.

Peter (profile) says:

PSSST, Techdirt: More smoking guns

There is evidence that the US Military was behind the creation of the Internet. Yes, right, the internet. Invented by DARPA. They clumsily tried to hide the fact by calling the prototype "Arpanet", sneakily leaving out the letter "D" to hide the links to "Defense". But the evidence is clear.

And what does that mean???

Nothing, until there is evidence of actual spying. You know, something like the Snowden papers revealing systematic abuse of infrastructure by the government to spy on people.

And what does it mean if actual evidence appears? Should the Chinese government and the spying entities be punished just like the US government and the NSA were punished?

Not at all?

Ok then, why again did we impose sanctions on Huawei?

TasMot (profile) says:

And Phone

Has anybody been carefully looking at every cellphone that government employees and contractors are using. A little bit if hidden code that could be activated by a foreign "wake up" call could turn on the microphone and/or send the data off of every phone back to China. They would the real donald’s tweets before the rest of the world. Wouldn’t that be horrible!!!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

"AT&T's ties to the NSA are so total"

Visiting Huawei in Shenzhen is like visiting Bell Labs/NSA (but I repeat myself).

The Huawei campus has its own freeway exit.

Like a university, many people live on the campus full-time.

So the Chinese copied the Bell Labs/NSA WWII/cold war model.


But none of this is news, so why the recent outrage?

Richard M (profile) says:

Of course the US is hypocritical

The hypocrisy of the US is nothing new. Look at all the "pearl clutching" going on about Russia interfering with our elections while the US has a long history of not only interfering with them but using force to overturn the results it does not like.

Yes of course we do not want other countries interfering with our elections and should do everything we can to keep that from happening.

However we have zero moral high ground to stand on when it comes to interference as the US Govt does it on a regular basis. Securing our elections is a good thing but all the hyperventilating about "How could Russia do such a thing" just makes the US look hypocritical and stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Of course the US is hypocritical

Re: Whataboutism/Whataboutery

Well, in this case, the equivalency is NOT false, so what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.

If the U.S. really wants to exercise “soft” power, and have people want to aspire to be more like the U.S., then the U.S. has to stop its obvious hypocrisy — e.g., the U.S.’s blind spot when it comes to certain countries in the Middle East which “coincidentally” happen to supply some of the lowest cost oil in the world, and also completely “coincidentally” supplied the manpower for 9/11.

The major “exceptionalism” of the U.S. is its exceptional hypocrisy.
The U.S. claims not to like dictators and tyranny and prefers democracy, but that is only for itself; it prefers dictators and tyranny for everyone else, so long as those dictators toe the line that the U.S. dictates — e.g., overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Iran and Chile.

Anonymous Coward says:

Still Citing From 2012 Huh?

Continues to bash American companies for things from 2012. Ignores the fact some of those same companies, at least one of which has had a new CEO since then, came out recently and expressly forbid their own employees of using the current trade dealings to their advantage when doing any sort of deal with potential customers.

Federico (profile) says:

Re: Still Citing From 2012 Huh?

Oh really, everything changed in NSA land since 2012? So the companies fired all the thousands of employees with links to the federal government, while NSA canceled multi-billion dollar contracts and dismissed tens of thousands of embedded employees? I missed the notices for mass layoffs, I’m happy you were paying attention.

R,ogs/ says:

Oh noooooes! The Chinee!

Re :
Huawei’s claims that it had absolutely no meaningful ties to state intelligence services has always likely been bullshit.

….So, whats the biggie? Chinese intelligence now competes with NSA /CIA /US corps to spy across the world?

The US died in 2001, replaced by an Israelified total surveillance state. Small irony is that the same people finance both ends of the donkey.

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