Throughout the conflict between Washington and Huawei, a central theme has been the alleged connections between the company and state defense and intelligence agencies in China.
The theory goes that the company has links and is obliged, under Chinese national security legislation, to collaborate with the state when asked to do so—and, where the company is supplying core networking equipment to overseas countries, that this carries clear risk.
Along with the question of hidden backdoors in hardware and software products, it is these state security links that Huawei has gone to the greatest lengths to deny.
But the debate will now intensify again, after the Telegraph reported on Saturday (July 6) that “Huawei staff have admitted to having worked with Chinese intelligence agencies in a ‘mass trove’ of employment records leaked online.”
The investigation—conducted by the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank that has warned on Huawei before—claimed this was indicative of “far closer links between the telecommunications company and military-backed cyber agencies than previously thought.”
Huawei, understandably, responded to point out that almost all companies of its size in the telecoms sector will have former government employees on staff. In this case, that’s an entirely reasonable claim. But, because for Huawei alleged connections with the state are so contentious, such employee links in this instance will resonate differently.
A Washington Post opinion piece, also this week, commented on the same issue, saying that “that Huawei maintains ties to the military in its home country isn’t unusual—it’s true for all telecommunications giants,” the problem is that Huawei has been “dishonest” about its links—”the existence of the ties are not as worrying as the lengths Huawei and Beijing go to keep them secret.”
According to the Henry Jackson Society researchers, the analysis of employee CVs—with as many as 25,000 uncovered by Fulbright University’s Christopher Balding—showed that Huawei staff had “worked as agents within China’s Ministry of State Security; worked on joint projects with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA); were educated at China’s leading military academy; and had been employed with a military unit linked to a cyber attack on U.S. corporations.”
John Hemmings, a director at the Henry Jackson Society, told me that “at the very early stages of analyzing this data trove, we are finding that these CVs show a pattern connecting Huawei employees to the military and Ministry of State Security. While one does find some former spooks in western telecoms, finding these connections in an authoritarian state is extremely different. Once again we see why Huawei‘s inclusion in Western 5G must be considered very carefully.”
A number of the CVs, highlighted in the report, are relevant because of the specific areas of government and defense referenced. Anything linked to cybersecurity, countermeasures, intelligence collection or even more general national security will clearly resonate given the context. For the researchers and the likely analysis that follows this exposure, this will be even more of an issue where former government work is similar in nature to the individual’s current work with the Shenzhen manufacturer.
One example given is for a current employee whose previous posting was with the National Information Security Engineering Centre, which Reuters has linked to the PLA’s Unit 61398—”the unit has been accused of being at the heart of China’s alleged cyber-war against Western commercial targets.”
Some employees have links to the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), which the report points out “is the primary entity responsible for espionage and counter-intelligence. It should raise immediate concern that MSS assets are working on networking equipment as representative agents for Huawei.”
Professor Balding described the CVs as “a treasure trove,” which, in his view, shows “a strong relationship between Huawei and all levels of the Chinese state, Chinese military and Chinese intelligence. This to me appears to be a systemized, structural relationship.”
A Huawei spokesperson responded to say that “this information is not new and is not secret, being freely available on LinkedIn and other career web sites. It is also not unusual that Huawei, in common with other tech companies around the world, employs people who have come from public service and worked in government. We are far more competitive thanks to our colleagues’ previous experiences. We are proud of their backgrounds and we are open about them.”
This is not the first time that claims have been made of substantive links between Huawei and the state. Such links have focused on state subsidies, financial support, closed procurements and state support in overseas lobbying efforts. Many similar benefits are available to companies outside of China in their own home markets, but that underlying inference of Chinese national security links and intelligence collection on behalf of the state makes it different here.
The Washington Post article focuses on state links at a senior level within Huawei, rather than employees further down the organization, highlighting chief legal officer Song Liuping’s obfuscated military background as an example. “When Huawei’s official website belies its representatives,” the newspaper asks, “some of whom, such as Song, had previously undisclosed links to the military—suspicion is justified. What else is Huawei hiding?”
That said, that there hasn’t been, yet, is a smoking gun. Clear-cut evidence that the company collects intel on behalf of the state and has been caught doing so. This week, the U.S. government told the federal court charged with judging whether the U.S. ban on Huawei is illegal that even the “prospective threat” of the company spying on behalf of the state is enough to justify the actions that have been taken.
“Huawei executives,” reported the New York Times, “have long expressed frustration over American officials’ clamping down on the company without presenting evidence that Beijing could use Huawei products for espionage, as Washington has claimed for years.”
And while the latest research and exposures will fuel the debate, they will not change its nature.
Zak Doffman is the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers, providing surveillance solutions to defense, security and law enforcement agencies worldwide. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.