“Prism, prism on the wall, who’s the most trustworthy of them all?” said Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping on stage on Tuesday at Mobile World Congress 2019. But Guo wasn’t talking about Snow White. He was poking fun at the massive surveillance programs maintained by the United States.
Huawei is under fire around the world as countries like the U.S., Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia question the technology company’s close ties to the Chinese government and warn of potential spying by Beijing. The U.S. Justice Department even charged Huawei with fraud, obstruction of justice, and theft of trade secrets from T-Mobile during a strange press conference last month. But in his keynote speech in Barcelona, Guo made it clear that the company won’t remain on the defensive.
This was punctuated by Guo trolling the U.S. with comments about America’s mass surveillance efforts, specifically a National Security Agency program whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. Guo claimed that not only is Huawei deploying the most innovative technologies in the world, it operates secure environments for everyone. Guo further insisted during his 17-minute keynote address that the company “has not and will never plant backdoors,” which is quickly becoming a company line.
Much of the conflict surrounding Huawei centers around the deployment of its 5G network. The U.S. has expressed concern that a 5G infrastructure created using Huawei technology would give China’s government sweeping abilities to surveil or otherwise control the world’s next-generation communications network.
“The irony is that the US CLOUD Act allows their governmental entities to access data across borders,” Guo said. Upon delivering his “Prism, prism on the wall, who’s the most trustworthy of them all?” line, a logo for the NSA’s PRISM program appeared on a screen behind him. The otherwise subdued audience broke out into scattered applause.
“It’s an important question. And if you don’t understand that, you can go ask Edward Snowden,” Guo continued as there was laughter from the crowd. “We can’t use prisms, crystal balls, or politics to manage cybersecurity. It’s a challenge we all share.”
Guo echoed these comments in an op-ed published by the Financial Times this week in which he argues that “the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks, the harder it becomes for the NSA to ‘collect it all.’”
Both at MWC and in the Financial Times, Guo failed to mention China’s own massive surveillance, censorship, and internment programs, of course.
You can watch a clip from Guo’s remarks for yourself on YouTube.
Snowden revealed the NSA’s PRISM program in June of 2013 as one of the American intelligence community’s tools for spying on the entire world. Following his historic leak of classified NSA documents, Snowden fled to Russia and remains there in exile, though he has stated publicly that he would like to return to the U.S.
Huawei has been playing defense for some time, and high-placed executives like Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei have given rare interviews with American media this month to insist that the company isn’t acting in the interests of the Chinese government.
Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on December 1, 2018, at the request of the U.S. government. Notably, Meng is the daughter of Huawei’s CEO, Ren Zhengfei, and the Chinese government has said that the charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department are unfounded and politically motivated. President Donald Trump hasn’t helped matters by implying that Meng could be released as part of his trade deal with China.
There’s no end to the battle between Huawei and the West in sight. And as countries on the “other” side of the New Cold War (like Russia) further cut off their internet from the rest of the world’s, we’re likely to see a balkanization of the tech community that hasn’t existed since the days of the Soviet Union.
The stereotype of the last Cold War was that the “other” side didn’t have a sense of humor. But that seems to have changed dramatically as the New Cold War gets warmed up. Chinese companies can chant Snow White rhymes all day long. Just don’t ask them about Winnie the Pooh.