The Canadian arm of Huawei Technologies Co. says it cannot and would not allow the Chinese government to access the wireless networks its technology supports, as it takes a more public stand to defend itself against claims it poses a security threat.
The Chinese telecom provider has faced mounting pressure as multiple countries have barred wireless carriers from using Huawei equipment in 5G cellular networks, citing concerns that Beijing could compel the company to conduct espionage on the government’s behalf.
For months, Huawei Canada has said little to address these concerns directly, but on Thursday, it released a statement on the subject.
“With respect to Chinese lawful access legislation, we work for our Canadian customers and partners only. Simply put, we comply only with Canadian laws,” said Huawei Canada president Eric Li, referencing a 2017 law that says companies in China “must support, co-operate with and collaborate in national-intelligence work” as requested by Beijing.
Three of Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network – the United States, Australia and New Zealand – have barred or limited Huawei equipment. Canada is conducting a cybersecurity review of Huawei and its 5G technology as it considers a similar ban.
“We cannot and would not ever allow access to the networks we support. It is not something we can do technically or legally. More importantly, it is not something we would ever consider doing ethically,” Mr. Li said. “Our top priority remains the security and integrity of the information and privacy of Canadians. Huawei Canada welcomes the scrutiny of the Canadian government – and the tests and safeguards that it seeks.”
His statement also reiterated a pledge the company made last month in a letter to the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, in which Mr. Li said Huawei will do “whatever is required to meet the standards of the Government of Canada.”
That came on the heels of a global public relations effort by Huawei chairman Ken Hu, who spoke with reporters in China, telling them, “We have never accepted requests from any government to damage the networks or business of any of our customers” and demanding: “if you have proof or evidence, it should be made known.” Mr. Hu also said the company is investing US$2-billion in a five-year program to address security concerns related to its software code.
But Christopher Parsons, a research associate at the Munk School’s Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, warns that the concerns go beyond what Huawei Canada can control.
“When Huawei Canada is saying they have no intent themselves of compromising the security of networks to the advantage of foreign adversaries, that’s probably true,” he said. “But that’s not the concern that’s been raised.”
He said experts from the intelligence community have warned, for example, that software updates to Huawei equipment “could enable remote access or other kinds of espionage capabilities.” He said that type of activity would likely be conducted in China.
“That isn’t something that Huawei Canada presumably would be designing and if it did occur, it isn’t something that people at Huawei Canada would be notified of," Mr. Parsons said. “I think that Huawei Canada’s position is admirable and appropriate and unsurprising, but it doesn’t really do anything whatsoever to address the key concerns that have been raised."
Jake Enwright, Huawei Canada director of corporate affairs, declined to comment on how Thursday’s statement fit into Huawei’s broader public relations effort and pointed back to Mr. Li’s statement when asked about concerns that Huawei could be compelled to co-operate with the Chinese government.
Many Canadian telecom providers have used Huawei equipment in their radio networks – the antennas and radios at the top of cell towers – but not in their network cores, which carry the majority of data traffic and contain more sensitive information. The government has permitted this arrangement and in 2013, federal authorities established a third-party testing process to monitor equipment security.
But concern about Huawei equipment has increased partly because in 5G networks, industry reports say, elements of the core technology will be closer to the radio network.
BCE Inc. and Telus Corp., Canada’s second- and third-largest wireless carriers, have used Huawei radio equipment extensively and are awaiting clarity from the government on whether they can continue to do so.
The Globe spoke with senior sources at BCE and Telus last month and granted them anonymity, as they were not permitted to speak publicly about the sensitive issue. The companies have built a shared 3G and LTE (4G or long-term evolution) network, and most of their radio equipment comes from Huawei, the sources said, with BCE at 60 per cent to 70 per cent and Telus at virtually 100 per cent.
The executives warned that banning Huawei would lead to higher costs and could delay the deployment of 5G technology in Canada. They argued that security concerns can be addressed by testing Huawei equipment and restricting its gear to non-sensitive parts of their networks and said a U.S. campaign to persuade that country’s allies to block the Chinese company is more about trade ambitions and a race for technological dominance than legitimate security fears.
Rogers Communications Inc., the country’s largest carrier, installed some Huawei equipment in Western Canada, but has swapped most of it for Sweden-based Ericsson, the company it says it plans to work with on 5G.