Wednesday, 06 June 2018 11:00

French expert: Huawei unsafe because 'China is not like us' Featured

Philippe Le Corre: "In China, the views about data are quite different from the views in the West. " Philippe Le Corre: "In China, the views about data are quite different from the views in the West. " Supplied

A French expert on China says that while there is no public evidence that Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has conducted espionage on behalf of Beijing, countries in the West should be careful because "China is not a country like Australia or the UK or the US".

Philippe Le Corre, a former adviser to the French Government and currently a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Centre of Business and Government, told Radio National's Breakfast program from Washington that "there is a possibility when you build infrastructure for a civilian operation to use backdoors in order to obtain certain data".

The interview was broadcast on Tuesday, with interviewer Hamish Mcdonald having interrogated Huawei Australia chairman John Lord on Monday about the company's operations and the numerous accusations it faces in the US and elsewhere.

Asked whether, based on what he knew about Huawei's operations around the world, Australia should be concerned that the company was seeking to play a role in the rollout of the 5G network, Le Corre said Canberra should indeed be concerned.

"Well, indeed it should. I mean, of course you have this presence in 170 countries and indeed I hear what (John) Lord said about being a private company and operating in all these countries. You know, there's been evidences of links of this company Huawei with the Chinese government at least not capitalistically but, you know, they have strong connections," he said.

"And the fact that Huawei is now the number one telecom infrastructure builder and owner in China means that it has a lot of political connections. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it is now trying to develop its device business. But it has provided a number of utilities, infrastructures, to governments.

"The market in Europe in particular seems, at least half of the market (is) owned by Huawei. Some countries have been easier than others, certainly the UK and somewhat Germany. But there is some concern, first about the possible connections between Huawei and the Communist Party and the Chinese state, that's one thing.

"And secondly there's been this long-term issue of state aid which has helped Huawei to develop its business in Europe in what's been seen as as unfair competition by the European Commission in particular which tried to take some action a few years ago."

In Australia, nearly six years ago, Huawei was denied any role in supplying equipment to the country's national broadband network project, following advice by ASIS, one of the country's spy agencies.

Mcdonald asked about the accusations made regularly by US intelligence and some US politicians that Huawei helps the Chinese Government conduct espionage activities and adding whether there was any actual evidence "that we know of publicly, that supports that?"

Le Corre answered that there was nothing in the open space. "Well, there's no... it's not in the open space but there is... the founder of the company was a senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army and the current chair is also a former military engineer," he responded.

"And they have connections with military regions across China and indeed with Chinese embassies around the world. Now you might say that any company has connections with embassies, but as it happens China is not a country like Australia or the UK or the US. It does have, you know, a certain set of principles that are not necessarily the same values as we have in the West."

Le Corre said the question raised the issue of backdoors. "As far as the question you asked there's this issue of backdoors. I'm not a technical person or expert myself, not a telecom expert, but there is a possibility when you build infrastructure for a civilian operation to use backdoors in order to obtain certain data," he said.

"I think that's what's of high concern to people here in the US and increasingly, I would say, in Europe. Obviously they have developed a number of research facilities for 5G and I think that's the issue in Australia and, in fact, very few people have invested in this domain quite sadly.

"Which means that the number of competitors may not be, you know, a lot. Having said that, it doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to what this company is and to the sort of lack of transparency that's been characterising its rise over the past 10 years in these 170 countries. I mean, you could name any region in the world, Huawei is quite involved there, from Africa to Latin America."

Mcdonald pointed to the answers provided by Lord about Huawei operating within the law in whichever country it was operating.

"But there are these new Chinese national intelligence laws introduced last year which suggest that the national intelligence agencies can call on any individual or organisation to co-operate with espionage activities," he said.

"How is it possible for this company to be compliant with Chinese laws and compliant with laws in the countries where they are operating in circumstances where they might contradict - and it's pretty obvious in that case where they might contradict?"

Lord seized on this. "Well, exactly," he said. "You see what's happening in China now is the current regime has become more authoritarian than the previous one over the last 30 years, You now have a regime which has been dealing with the Chinese diaspora around the world and tried to use different networks to get information about the rest of the diaspora and also, as you referred, on intelligence issues.

"There have been cases of Chinese experts or academics involved in such espionage around the world. As far as a company like Huawei is concerned, they will have to be very cautious about doing that, but again the laws that you refer to and the connections with the state and the government and we're talking about sensitive fields which is about accessing data.

"In China, the views about data are quite different from the views in the West. You can basically access big data in China when you are a senior government official which is not the case in Australia or in the rest of the Western world. For that reason, I would be incredibly cautious."

Huawei faced problems in the US in January, with a deal for AT&T to sell its phones on plans being cancelled at the last minute.

And following this, Verizon was reported to have yielded to pressure from the US Government to stop selling Huawei devices. In February, US intelligence chiefs warned against the use of Huawei equipment.

Mcdonald then raised the way the UK deals with Huawei. "You pointed out that the attitude in Europe towards this company has been different. We're interested in the idea that in the UK there's something called the Cell. It's part of Huawei somewhere in Oxfordshire it's a cyber security centre that exists to ensure its technology can't be compromised for nefarious purposes. It seems to be effectively oversight by the spy agency GCHQ. Can you explain whether that is what makes a country like the UK more comfortable with Huawei's involvement in the network?" he asked.

Le Corre did not appear to be convinced by the arrangement. "Well, I don't think it is that comfortable to be honest. Originally it was announced about 10 years ago or perhaps eight or nine years ago... You're right, it is the GCHQ which is a cabinet-level agency in Downing Street. They are sort of supervising Huawei materials that are coming into the UK and operating infrastructure for BT or for Vodafone, for example.

"But it doesn't mean everything has to go through that cell, that mechanism and then again, we live in the world of cloud computing and big data. I don't believe having this lab, it's kind of a lab really, means that the whole of the UK is protected from an outside operator.

"And again, there's this issue of values, and conflicts of interest which are essential to the UK. So there's been actually quite a bit of discussion within the House of Commons and I was actually referring to it in my book that came out two years ago China's offensive in Europe. And you know the House of Commons Select Committee on National Security issues was quite dubious about the efficiency of the mechanism used."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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