Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping has gone on the offensive this week at Mobile World Congress, following continued pressure on US allies to drop the Chinese telecoms giant over national security fears. In a strident on-stage speech and a Financial Times editorial, Guo is escalating Huawei’s side of the story by explicitly calling out the NSA, which Edward Snowden has shown to have hacked Huawei in the past, while presenting his company as a more secure option for the rest of the world.
“If the NSA wants to modify routers or switches in order to eavesdrop, a Chinese company will be unlikely to co-operate,” Guo says in the FT, citing a leaked NSA document that said the agency wanted “to make sure that we know how to exploit these [Huawei] products.” Guo argues that his company “hampers US efforts to spy on whomever it wants,” reiterating its position that “Huawei has not and will never plant backdoors.”
A Spiegel report from 2014 said that the NSA had succeeded in accessing the source code of various Huawei products as well as email messages from founder Ren Zhengfei. “We currently have good access and so much data that we don’t know what to do with it,” one document read.
“I would prefer to... make sure we have a fact-based conversation.”
The US, for its part, has also been pressing its security concerns to allies at MWC this week. “Threats to US networks have a direct bearing on the security of our allies just as threats to our allies networks have a direct bearing on the security of our networks,” said State Department ambassador for cyber and international communications Robert Strayer. “Do you want to have a system that is potentially compromised by the Chinese government or do you want to go with a secure alternative?” Strayer asks, further arguing that Chinese law “requires firms to support and assist Beijing’s vast security apparatus.”
But the US is yet to present evidence of any coordinated hacking by Huawei, and Vodafone CEO Nick Read — who runs the largest mobile carrier in the Western world — remains unconvinced, saying that removing Huawei equipment would be “hugely disruptive” to 5G rollouts. “I would at this stage prefer to be working with governments and securities on a national basis and making sure we have a fact-based conversation,” he said at an MWC press conference.
Although the US and Huawei have tangled on this topic for many years, the issue has resurfaced as countries start to build out their 5G networks. Huawei is undoubtedly one of the technical leaders in the field, alongside Europe’s Nokia and Ericsson, and is seen to be competitive on price. Its supposedly employee-owned structure is murky, however, and Ren’s former association with the People’s Liberation Army has continued to cast doubt over the company. The company also faces US federal charges for allegedly stealing intellectual property from T-Mobile as part of an alleged bonus program that incentivized Huawei employees to lift confidential information from other companies.
But Guo’s comments this week show Huawei taking a more headstrong approach to the national security debate. “The fusillade being directed at Huawei is the direct result of Washington’s realization that the US has fallen behind in developing a strategically important technology,” he claims. “The global campaign against Huawei has little to do with security, and everything to do with America’s desire to suppress a rising technological competitor.”