The US National Security Agency (NSA) created “back doors” into the networks of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, according to reports based on documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In 2011, a US House Intelligence Committee launched an investigation into the threat posed by Chinese-owned telecommunications companies in the US, and the government’s response to that threat.
Huawei has struggled to make gains in the US market because of continual questions of links with the Chinese government.
Networks of interest
According to the leaked documents, the NSA infiltrated servers in Huawei’s headquarters to monitor communications of top executives and get information about the routers and digital switches that Huawei claims connect a third of the world’s population.
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The NSA operation aimed at finding links between Huawei and the People’s Liberation Army; and exploiting Huawei’s technology to conduct surveillance on customers, particularly in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya and Cuba.
“Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products,” the leaked NSA document said. “We want to make sure we know how to exploit these products,” it added, to “gain access to networks of interest” around the world.
The documents, as well as interviews with intelligence officials, offer new insights into the escalating digital cold war between the US and China, said the New York Times.
The NSA is tracking more than 20 Chinese hacking groups – more than half of which are Chinese military organisations – which are increasingly breaking into US government and commercial networks, according to current and former US officials, the paper said.
'Legitimate national security'
However, the US claims the NSA’s operations are only for legitimate national security purposes and has consistently denied giving intelligence to US companies to enhance their competitiveness.
The reports note that the leaked documents do not confirm whether Huawei is an independent company or a front for the Chinese military.
But William Plummer, Huawei's vice-president of external affairs, said the company had no idea it was an NSA target. He said: “If such espionage has been truly conducted, then it is known that the company is independent and has no unusual ties to any government, and that knowledge should be relayed publicly to put an end to an era of misinformation.”
In an email to the Associated Press, Plummer said: "Huawei has declared its willingness to work with governments, industry stakeholders and customers in an open and transparent manner, to jointly address the global challenges of network security and data integrity.
“The information presented in Der Spiegel and the New York Times article reaffirms the need for all companies to be vigilant at all times."
Huawei’s global cyber security officer John Suffolk said that, if the NSA actions in the report are true: “Huawei condemns such activities that invaded and infiltrated into our internal corporate network and monitored our communications.”
In further defence of Huawei’s independence and security record, Suffolk – a former UK government CIO – said the company was very successful in 145 countries. "Corporate networks are under constant probe and attack from different sources – such is the status quo in today's digital age,” he said.