Understanding the debate
In the midst of all this, Huawei made clear that their new focus on cyber security should not be taken as some tacit admission of guilt. To the contrary, the company continues to push back on the espionage claims of Western nations, demanding that they at least provide proof to telecoms if not to the general public.
The United States has been positing theoretical concerns about Huawei since 2012, when the House of Representatives issued a report finding no direct evidence of espionage but expressed concern about Huawei’s refusal to fully disclose its relationship with the Chinese government. There is legitimate basis to believe Huawei might pose a security risk at some point, as China reserves the right to require private companies to collect intelligence for them on demand.
On the other hand, it is absolutely fair for Huawei to request evidence of what are serious accusations. The public has yet to see any concrete evidence of this nature. Some Western nations, such as Germany, have also asked that evidence of these charges be presented before they ban Huawei products.
There are also possible motivations for rival intelligence agencies to issue unfounded reports. These same agencies have shown a strong interest in having encryption-bypassing backdoors for their use be standard in phone hardware, something that cannot be done with phones made by Chinese companies. And the National Security Agency has already been caught committing the same sort of espionage against Huawei that they accuse the company of; the Edward Snowden leaks revealed that the agency hacked Huawei and copied source code as part of an operation called “Shotgiant”, the ultimate goal of which was to find exploits to allow them surreptitious access to the company’s hardware throughout the world.
There is also a race between the world’s leading economic powers to be the first to roll out 5G networks on a national scale, which would give the winner a significant research and development edge in technologies such as autonomous vehicles. The issue may end up being more about one (or all) of these things than it is about Huawei cyber security policies.
Huawei cyber security: Is their hardware safe to use?
The likely answer here is that both sides are engaging some level of spycraft. Huawei has been caught conducting corporate espionage against a number of major competitors over the last decade and a half, and the American intelligence agencies have conducted documented operations against both China and Huawei. There really are no clear-cut “good guys” here.
Huawei has to weigh up its new position as one of the world’s biggest telecoms and a company with over $280 billion in global annual revenue, something that is put at serious risk if it becomes as blatant an espionage arm of the Chinese government as some intelligence agencies are portraying it as. The company is likely more valuable as a China-based economic powerhouse than it is as a surreptitious data dragnet, and it would not likely last long trying to be both at once. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t exercise due caution in evaluating Huawei hardware and services, but the new Huawei cyber security approach may well go a long way to restoring consumer trust once it is fully developed and disclosed to the public.