Former Spy Chief Accuses Huawei of Espionage

Buildings housing the R&D teams at Huawei Global Headquarters in Shenzhen.

The former head of the NSA and CIA has accused Huawei, a major IT manufacturer with a growing presence in datacenter products, of spying for the Chinese government.

Retired four-star U.S. Army General Michael Hayden accused Huawei in an interview published this morning in the Australian Financial Review.

Hayden cited no specific evidence that Huawei was involved in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government, nor did he bring up instances of espionage in which Huawei might have been involved. “At a minimum, Huawei would have shared with the Chinese state intimate and extensive knowledge of the foreign telecommunications systems it is involved with,” Hayden said. “I think that goes without saying. That’s one reality.”

Hayden’s “professional judgment” is that Huawei should be assumed guilty due to the Chinese government’s habit of supporting the growth of companies it considers “national champions,” as well as the well-established presence of a large digital-espionage effort by China against the West.

Hayden said that Huawei has been given the opportunity to appear before the U.S. Congress, as well as private briefings with Hayden and other U.S. officials, to prove that it isn’t spying for China. Those efforts fell “well short of providing any comforting testimony that would make me begin to question the intuitive premise that Huawei presents serious national security risks on a first-principles basis,” he said. “In fact, I don’t think Huawei has ever really tried hard to meet this burden of proof test.”

It’s not clear whether it would be possible for any company to meet that burden, however. “God did not make enough briefing slides on Huawei to convince me that having then involved in our critical communications infrastructure was going to be okay,” Hayden added. “This is not blind prejudice on my part. This is my considered view based on a four-decade career as an intelligence officer.”

Huawei global cyber security officer John Suffolk told the Financial Review that Hayden’s accusations were unsubstantiated, defamatory and tired enough that it should be disregarded without actual evidence: “It’s time to put up or shut up.”

Other security agencies and analysts have called Huawei’s lack of transparency suspicious, especially in regard to questions about which executives actually run the company, who chooses its leadership, and whether the distinguished history of the company’s CEO as a major in the Chinese army indicates a connection that’s too close for comfort, according to reporting by Art Wittman in InformationWeek.

Based on those and other suspicions, the British government has launched an investigation into the security status of Huawei. A report from the U.K. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said that, while widespread concerns in the U.K., U.S. and Australia are consistent, they are based on perceptions rather than hard evidence.

Those perceptions are justified, according to a report issued last October following a yearlong investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives’ intelligence committee. The report effectively barred Huawei from selling products that would become part of public U.S. telecommunications networks, due to the potential for abuse that access would provide.

Even if Huawei’s management refused outright to cooperate with the Chinese government, once Huawei products were built into U.S. telecommunications networks, it would be child’s play for Chinese intelligence agencies to recruit low-level Huawei employees to add backdoors, distribute malware, or give Chinese spy agencies access to do it themselves, the report concluded (PDF).

Huawei failed to allay suspicion by giving the committee evasive answers about its operations in Iran or evidence that it complies with U.S. sanctions against Iran. The company also refused to provide enough detail about its R&D operation to prove Huawei was not developing technology or intelligence for Chinese intelligence services. And it failed to explain “illegal” behavior by Huawei officials and employees, including copyright violations. The committee’s decision that Huawei poses a serious and ongoing security risk effectively barred Huawei from selling to major U.S. telcos.


Image: Huawei