A Huawei booth under construction in Hannover, Germany for the CeBIT tech fair in 2017.
Photo: Holger Hollemann/dpa (AP)

The U.S. government has sent a warning to Germany that it may limit what information is handed over via intelligence-sharing agreements if the latter country allows Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to build its next-generation 5G networks, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

U.S. intelligence officials have been issuing warnings for years that Huawei technology could possibly be co-opted by the Chinese government for espionage purposes, though they have never publicly released hard evidence and Huawei has repeatedly issued denials. In a letter to the German economic minister, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard A. Grenell wrote that intelligence sharing will be pared back if Huawei is allowed to participate in 5G networks, the Journal wrote:

The letter, which was dated Friday and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, marks the first known time the U.S. has explicitly warned an ally that refusing to ostracize Huawei could lessen security cooperation with Washington. Among other things, European security agencies have relied heavily on U.S. intelligence in the fight against terrorism.

U.S. officials declined to say whether other countries have received or would receive similar warnings... [Grenell] noted that the code running on 5G equipment would need frequent updates and was so complex that the potential for so-called backdoors and other system vulnerabilities couldn’t be ruled out even if Huawei were to let regulators regularly inspect its software.

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The central concern appears to be that if Huawei networking gear is used in German 5G networks, then they will no longer be secure against Chinese intrusion. Further, the U.S. likely needs its allies to support the pushback against Huawei in order for the isolation tactic to have any meaningful effect. The U.S. has additional concerns about the use of Chinese personnel, such as whether Huawei will allow oversight from security services, according to the paper.

While Huawei founder Ren Zhengei insists his company will not install backdoors in its 5G products, experts say the company is required by law to do so if China’s government demands it. As CNBC reports, both the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law mandate that Chinese firms comply with state security efforts.

The Journal wrote that the National Security Council also warned allies on Monday that use of Huawei technology was ill-advised because 5G networks rely on software that can be manipulated to allow for unfettered surveillance.

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“Because 5G networks are largely software-defined, updates pushed to the network by the manufacturer can radically change how they operate,” NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis told the paper. “The 5G networks our allies buy won’t be the networks that they eventually operate, as the software could be changed on a moment-to-moment basis by the manufacturer.”

“The Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy has indeed received a letter,” German embassy in DC spokesman Matthias Wehler told CNN. “There is no comment on its content from their side. There will be a quick reply.”

However, the Journal reported that a spokesman at the German Economic Ministry said the concerns were not new, and they had seen no evidence that they were true. A different German security official told the paper he had received a less aggressive line from his equivalents stateside, so it’s possible that the ambassador’s notice was more bark than bite.

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As CNN noted, the U.S. has pushed for the “UK, Australia, Poland, the European Union, the Philippines and a slew of other countries” to impose bans or restrictions on Huawei products, which correlated with a ban in Australia and partial bans in New Zealand. Tensions have also run high over the detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is facing possible extradition to the U.S. on allegations she committed financial fraud in the course of allegedly violating international sanctions on Iran. Zhengei, Meng’s father, recently described the battles over the firm as “politically motivated” and part of an attempt to “crush us” because its 5G technology enjoys a wide lead over Western competitors.

Last week, Huawei filed a lawsuit against the U.S. for restricting its agencies from the use of Huawei products, saying a law signed by President Donald Trump in August 2018 that barred it and fellow Chinese company ZTE from use in government work is unconstitutional. Essentially, the lawsuit is daring U.S. intelligence services to put up or shut up. The company said it had a “solid track record in cybersecurity” and further accused the U.S. of breaking into its corporate systems, stealing information.

[Wall Street Journal/CNN]

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