White House official says Huawei has secret back door to extract data

Huawei has insisted that it does not answer to the Chinese government and that it would not spy on its customers. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Huawei has the ability to secretly retrieve sensitive information in next-generation wireless networks and other systems it maintains around the world, a top White House official said Tuesday (Feb 11).

The comment from Mr Robert O'Brien, the national security adviser, is one of the sharpest public denunciations of the Chinese company by the Trump administration, and comes as the United States is reeling from the decision by Britain to allow Huawei to build part of their fifth-generation, or 5G, network.

US intelligence officials have long said privately that Huawei has so-called back doors that could allow the company to obtain data that flows on the networks they build and maintain.

But publicly, officials have spoken mostly about the potential that Huawei could provide Chinese officials with access to all kinds of data, without offering concrete proof.

Mr O'Brien said Tuesday that the United States had evidence that Huawei could "access sensitive and personal information" in the systems it maintains around the world.

"This is alarming because Chinese companies, by law, must comply with directives of the Chinese Communist Party," Mr O'Brien said. "Strategically, we see a company that can use its position in the market to advance the aims of the Chinese Communist Party."

Huawei has insisted that it does not answer to the Chinese government and that it would not spy on its customers.

The Trump administration has spent the past year trying to pressure its allies, with limited success, to prevent Huawei from building their next-generation wireless networks. The effort has included warning other countries that Huawei poses a risk and threatening them with a loss of access to American intelligence if they allowed the Chinese telecommunication company into their networks.

Until recently, US officials have been unwilling to share technical details with allies. But that stance has changed in recent weeks, as American officials have sought to persuade German and British officials of the danger of Huawei.

In the case of Britain, the strategy has failed, as officials there announced last month that they would allow some Huawei equipment into their networks.

On Tuesday, lawmakers said that allies should reconsider their decisions to allow the Chinese company into their new networks.

"The freedom-loving world can't sit back and let surveillance state communists infect our infrastructure," Senator Ben Sasse said Tuesday.

The United States decision to share more information about Huawei's back door with allies was first reported Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal.

Carriers in most countries have ways to give law enforcement officials access to parts of the network. But Huawei maintains access to those back doors, and can get data from them even without the permission of carriers, The Journal reported.

Advocacy groups said the backdoor access was why they had been pushing for the US government and companies to do more to develop a strong competitor to Huawei.

"We simply cannot risk allowing Huawei - and by extension the Chinese government - having back-door access to our telecommunications networks," said Mr Ian Prior, a spokesman for 5G Action Now, an interest group. "It is a danger to our national security, economic security and personal privacy."

The effort to understand security vulnerabilities in Huawei's equipment goes back years, well before the development of the current 5G systems.

The National Security Agency infiltrated Huawei's systems years ago in a classified operation code-named Shotgiant. The effort was intended to determine if the People's Liberation Army was the true owner of the company, but it also involved delving into the technology of the company's switching systems including any back doors that the company maintained.

The effort by the National Security Agency was revealed in 2014, as part of the documents leaked by the former contractor Edward Snowden.

The Trump administration has taken steps to try to block Huawei from America's next-generation mobile networks, and has also tried to stop companies from selling parts to the Chinese company. But an effort to close loopholes in those rules, for now, has been stalled.

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