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A Helijet helicopter flies past gantry cranes at the Port of Vancouver while landing on the harbour in Vancouver on March 11, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

B.C. Premier David Eby says Ottawa is working with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to assess whether massive cargo cranes operating in several Canadian ports pose a national-security risk, after an American congressional investigation uncovered hidden modems installed on the Shanghai-built machines.

A U.S. House of Representatives’ joint committee announced earlier this month that it had found that Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. Ltd. (ZPMC), which made about 80 per cent of the ship-to-shore cranes operating across American ports, had installed the communications devices that “do not contribute to the operation” of the cranes.

The committee has asked ZPMC to answer a number of questions about its findings, noting in a letter sent to the company’s Shanghai-based president and the president of its U.S. subsidiary that American politicians were concerned these cranes introduce a “significant risk of future exploitation” by the Communist Party of China during a national emergency.

“Analysis of this material has led us to conclude that ZPMC installed certain components onto U.S.-bound STS [ship-to-shore] cranes and onshore maritime infrastructure that are outside of any existing contract between ZPMC and U.S. maritime ports,” the Feb. 29 letter states.

Last week, The Globe and Mail sent requests for comment on this American probe to Public Safety Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canadian Border Services Agency, which regulates the importation of this type of infrastructure. Spokespeople for all three bodies deferred comment to Transport Canada, which oversees the country’s ports.

Hicham Ayoun, senior spokesperson for Transport Canada, declined to say whether the country has launched its own probe into potential risks posed by these cranes. Instead, his one-sentence statement noted the agency works with security agencies and stakeholders, “including those in the United States, to identify and mitigate security threats to Canada’s marine transportation system.”

But at an unrelated press conference on Thursday, B.C.’s Premier told The Globe that he had brought up his concern over the cranes days earlier with Peter Xotta, the new head of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

Mr. Eby said he was told “the port is aware of the issue and working with the federal government to address it.”

He added: “This is not an area of provincial jurisdiction but I certainly encourage the port and the federal government to act quickly to ensure cranes in British Columbia are not affected by this.”

The massive cranes are in operation at numerous terminals in and around Vancouver and Prince Rupert – on B.C.’s northern coast – as well as in Halifax and Montreal.

Peter Julian, NDP MP and member of the standing committee on public safety and national security, declined an interview request but sent a statement decrying the lack of security and inspections at Canada’s ports and calling on Ottawa to investigate the “incredibly concerning” allegations that ZPMC cranes may pose a security risk.

Michael Chong, the federal Conservative foreign affairs critic, also declined an interview request but sent a statement saying Ottawa has failed to protect Canada’s national security from foreign threats, including at ports.

ZPMC issued a statement last week denying its cranes “pose any cybersecurity risk to any port” and maintaining it always strictly adheres to the laws and regulations of the countries in which its machines work. The company added that it is taking seriously these allegations, which can “easily mislead the public” without a “sufficient review of the facts.”

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority deferred comment to Global Container Terminals, or GCT, and DP World – the two companies that lease its container terminals and are responsible for their own equipment.

The Dubai-based DP World did not respond to requests to comment on the findings of the congressional probe, but the Vancouver-based GCT sent a statement saying its ZPMC cranes, which it has used for a quarter century, do not – by design – “have cellular modems other than the ones we may install ourselves.”

The company added that each component of these cranes goes through a rigorous assessment and testing process before and after it arrives at their terminals. GCT also noted that it does not use ZMPC’s own software to use the cranes in question, instead opting for Swedish and North American providers of this technology.

Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, said the federal government once again appears to be reactive rather than proactive on a matter of potential national security.

Still, Dr. Leuprecht said, American security agencies have many more resources and the ability to uncover such risks and often do so first before alerting their allies. The major concern, he said, is that these devices highlighted in the congressional investigation could offer a “backdoor” for China to disable critical infrastructure during a crisis or emergency.

“This is the same problem as with the Huawei routers: They may not pose a risk today – everybody says, ‘We haven’t found any malware’ – the problem is you can install that malware overnight,” Dr. Leuprecht said.

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