Reports: NSA spied on China telecom giant Huawei

Chinese shoppers walk past a Huawei store in Beijing on March 24, 2014. Chinese telecoms and Internet giant Huawei condemned the US National Security Agency on March 24 after reports revealed the organisation had been secretly tapping the company's networks for years. 

The U.S. National Security Agency reportedly gained access into Huawei’s servers in 2009, at the same time that the U.S. Congress was about to block Huawei from the American market because of fears that Huawei would gain access to U.S. servers. In recent years, the U.S.government has viewed Huawei with suspicion, and that’s allegedly the reason the NSA was spying on the company. The U.S.government's biggest fear about Huawei has been the fear that the company has close connections to China’s military.

Neither through New York Times nor the Der Spiegel stories about what the NSA learned about Huawei confirm that suspicion. The extent of what is reported is that the US has been spying on Huawei and it was also interested in gaining access to information about Huawei’s customers, too, a list that includes the countries of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, just to name a few.

More than 140 countries – a third of the world’s population - use Huawei routers, servers, and cell phone towers. Huawei, the largest telecommunications company in the world, is a potential goldmine of information for an agency like the NSA.

The timing of the release of these reports has raised a lot of questions. Edward Snowden disclosed a trove of NSA documents nearly a year ago - many experts wonder: why are just learning about the targeting of Huawei now? Snowden first made headlines last year on the eve of a summit between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. At that time, the Obama administration was openly complaining about China stealing data from US companies.

The disclosure that the NSA is spying on Huawei happens to fall on the eve of another meeting between Presidents Obama and Xi today in the Hague.

“This completely destroys any argument that the US has been making about cyberespionage or cybertheft," says Bill Bishop, publisher of the China media site Sinocism. "The US has absolutely no moral high ground to argue publicly that the bad Chinese have been stealing stuff online.”

Bishop says American tech companies like IBM and Cisco - competitors of Huawei with a presence in China- have  already been under a lot of pressure in China since the Snowden leaks. He says this latest revelation will probably make it worse for these companies.

If you’re a Chinese company, says Bishop, you’re going to be re-evaluating where you buy your network equipment, and state-owned companies will likely steer clear of US products, and maybe even Huawei products, now, too, given today's news.

 

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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