John Suffolk's grilling by MPs exposes the tech industry's troubling amorality

In an astonishing and frankly unprecedented turn of events before the Science and Technology Select Committee this week, Huawei chief security officer John Suffolk was branded a “moral vacuum” by Conservative MP Julian Lewis.

Lewis was questioning Suffolk over his knowledge and acceptance of Huawei’s sale of surveillance and networking technology to repressive, autocratic regimes around the world, and its alleged complicity in the Chinese government’s oppression of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, and Suffolk responded that this was beyond his purview, saying essentially that Huawei had to be amoral in how it acts in accordance with the law of the countries it does business in.

Lewis went a bit too far in his choice of language, and his colleague Graham Stringer certainly went much too far when he tried to get Suffolk to compare Huawei to IG Farben, the German chemical company complicit in the genocide of millions of Jewish people in the Holocaust.

In his evidence, Suffolk referred to his decade-spanning career, including a notable stint as the UK government’s CIO, dating back to the 1970s. Now I don’t want to call one of our country’s foremost security and telecoms experts a dinosaur, but in my opinion amorality in the technology industry is starting to look positively prehistoric.

While I understand why Suffolk took the line that he did – that he had no view on anything to do with human rights, that Huawei complies with the law of the land wherever it operates, and so on – the difficulty I have is that in these troubled times, to take this kind of position is no longer really okay.

Quite frankly, although his answers to the Select Committee may have protected Huawei’s interests, they were in my view, totally unacceptable. Read some of them for yourself:

Norman Lamb, MP (Committee Chair): Should we do business with a company that is complicit in human rights abuses?

John Suffolk: I think you should do business with all companies that stick to the law.

Julian Lewis, MP: There is a lot of law in China, isn’t there? Just like there was a lot of law in Nazi Germany. Some laws are good laws and some laws are bad. Some countries are totalitarian, repressive one-party states, and that includes communist China, doesn’t it?

JS: We do not make judgments about whether laws are right or wrong. It is for others to make those judgments.

JL: Do you have a view as to whether China is a one-party state?

JS: China is a one-party state, yes.

JL: Do you have a view as to whether that Chinese one-party state is repressive of human rights?

JS: I don’t have a view on that, no.

JL: You don’t have a personal view on that.

JS: I don’t have a personal view on that.

JL: You are a moral vacuum.

JS: I don’t believe so, no.

JL: Is there any country in the world with a repressive government that you would be unwilling to take a job from if you were offered it?

JS: I have never given that any thought, so I cannot answer that question.

JL: Well, here’s an opportunity—give it some thought. Is there any regime in the world that you would not be prepared to work for, as long as your work involved observing the laws in that country?

JS: As I said, I have not given that any thought. If you want me to answer the question with some thought, I cannot do that now.

NL: That is a remarkable position you have stated.

Now, I am inclined to think that broadly speaking, the UK has got it right on Huawei. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) has done excellent work and as a result Britain has some of the most in-depth knowledge of how Huawei works in the west.

In light of this I think the government is taking logical, reasonable and rational action, in step with the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs), to ensure that if there is any risk to our country’s national security from using Huawei equipment, it is minimised and controlled, and that China cannot exploit it for intelligence-gathering missions.

Because while I believe the UK is on the right track, and that President Trump’s attacks on Huawei are overblown, I also believe that China is to some extent a hostile, bad-faith actor on the global stage, that its leadership has been guilty of crimes against humanity, and that it has used technology in the service of oppression. It is right that we are cautious.

At Huawei’s customer event in Shanghai in 2018, I sat in on a terrifying session where Huawei’s public safety specialist Hong-Eng Koh, a former Singapore cop, gleefully shared details of Huawei’s surveillance technology and disclaimed all responsibility for how it might be used when challenged by one of our colleagues from Diginomica, who was also sitting in on the panel.

It is very easy to conclude, and indeed I think likely, that Huawei’s surveillance tech has been used in the oppression of China’s Muslim population, and it has certainly been sold to a number of decidedly unsavoury and autocratic regimes, which is something Huawei makes no secret of.

Unethical and dystopian

As you have read, John Suffolk said he had no particular views one way or the other on any of this. But consider the activities of Facebook, which has been implicated in misuse of user data that may have swayed elections, consider Twitter’s apparent unwillingness to clamp down on hate speech, consider the steady stream of  stories about Amazon’s growing power and how it is being used.

There is unarguably now substantial and growing public anger that tech firms have crossed a line and that digital technology is being employed in the service of an unethical and dystopian strain of exploitative capitalism.

Titans of the industry like Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are (rightly or wrongly) now reviled by many as utterly without morals, concerned not with whether something is right or good, but with whether they can make money off it. To that list we might reasonably add Huawei’s chief, Ren Zhengfei, as well.

If John Suffolk ever felt inclined to take advice from me, it would be that he should have considered these points, that he should have a view on human rights, that he needs to demonstrate that Huawei is acting fairly, honestly, and with accountability and integrity.

Instead he gave vague answers and evaded the questions. I’m sorry, Mr Suffolk, but you made yourself look like Michael Howard on Newsnight.

John Suffolk’s generation of Baby Boomers are now hitting retirement age, the oldest Millennials are starting to reach positions of greater power and influence as we approach our 40s, and in the dangerous and uncertain world we are inheriting from our parents we need fairness, honesty, accountability and integrity more than ever. And by the way, the kids of Generation Z (those born after about 1996) are now entering the workforce, and they’re even angrier.

It’s time for the technology industry to think on: if it wants to lead on building an ethical digital future, it can no longer afford to be amoral.

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