As a top Huawei executive, I’m often asked why the US has launched a full-scale assault on us. The Americans have charged us with stealing technology and violating trade sanctions and largely blocked us from doing business there. Mike Pence, US vice-president, recently told NATO of “the threat posed by Huawei,” and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, warned allies that using our telecommunications equipment would make it harder for the US to “partner alongside them.”
On Tuesday at the Mobile World Congress, the industry’s largest trade show, a US delegation including Ajit Pai, Federal Communications Commission chair, repeated the call to keep Huawei out of global 5G networks.
Washington has cast aspersions on Huawei for years. A 2012 report by the House Intelligence Committee labelled us a threat. But, until recently, these attacks were relatively muted. Now that the US has brought out the heavy artillery and portrayed Huawei as a threat to Western civilization, we must ask why.
I believe the answer is in the top secret US National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. Formed in 1952, the NSA monitors electronic communications, such as email and phone calls, for intelligence and counter-intelligence purposes.
The Snowden leaks shone a light on how the NSA’s leaders were seeking to “collect it all” — every electronic communication sent, or phone call made, by everyone in the world, every day. Those documents also showed that the NSA maintains “corporate partnerships” with particular US technology and telecom companies that allow the agency to “gain access to high-capacity international fibre-optic cables, switches, and/or routers throughout the world”.
Huawei operates in more than 170 countries and earns half of its revenue abroad, but its headquarters are in China. This significantly reduces the odds of a “corporate partnership”. If the NSA wants to modify routers or switches in order to eavesdrop, a Chinese company will be unlikely to co-operate. This is one reason why the NSA hacked into Huawei’s servers. “Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products,” a 2010 NSA document states. “We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products.”
Clearly, the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks, the harder it becomes for the NSA to “collect it all”. Huawei, in other words, hampers US efforts to spy on whomever it wants. This is the first reason for the campaign against us.
The second reason has to do with 5G. This latest generation of mobile technology will provide data connections for everything from smart factories to electric power grids. Huawei has invested heavily in 5G research for the past 10 years, putting us roughly a year ahead of our competitors. That makes us attractive to countries that are preparing to upgrade to 5G in the next few months.
If the US can keep Huawei out of the world’s 5G networks by portraying us as a security threat, it can retain its ability to spy on whomever it wants. America also directly benefits if it can quash a company that curtails its digital dominance. Hobbling a leader in 5G technology would erode the economic and social benefits that would otherwise accrue to the countries that roll it out early. Meanwhile, US laws, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Stored Communications act as amended by the CLOUD Act, empower the US government to compel telecom companies to assist in its program of global surveillance, as long as the order is framed as an investigation involving counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism.
The fusillade being directed at Huawei is the direct result of Washington’s realisation that the US has fallen behind in developing a strategically important technology. 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.