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Former top Canadian security officials warn Ottawa to sever links with China’s Huawei

Three former directors of Canada’s key national security agencies are urging the federal government to heed the warnings of U.S. intelligence services and cut Canadian ties with Huawei, the giant Chinese smartphone and telecom equipment maker.

Ward Elcock, John Adams and Richard Fadden are weighing in on the matter after the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and the Defence Intelligence Agency recently told the U.S. Senate intelligence committee that Huawei poses a cybersecurity threat to American customers. U.S. spymasters say Huawei’s smartphones and networking equipment could be used to conduct undetected espionage, especially the next, advanced generation of 5G technology.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told The Globe and Mail in a statement on Friday that Huawei is being monitored and does not pose a risk to Canada’s cybersecurity.

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5G technology is coming – and it’s going to change your life

But Mr. Elcock, a former CSIS director, deputy minister of National Defence, and Security and Intelligence Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council, said he shares U.S. concerns about Huawei, which was founded by a former engineer in the People’s Liberation Army and has been accused of acting as an arm of Beijing.

“I have a pretty good idea of how signal-intelligence agencies work and the rules under which they work and their various operations and … I would not want to see Huawei equipment being incorporated into a 5G network in Canada,” Mr. Elcock told The Globe. Signals intelligence is the monitoring and interception of predominantly foreign communications by national security agencies.

Canada has been wary of Huawei’s operations for years, but the company’s presence here has been growing, and security experts say Ottawa has not been as aggressive as other Western countries, such as Britain, in testing Huawei’s equipment for security vulnerabilities.

Bell Canada is conducting trial runs in rural communities to test the next generation of 5G technology. Last March, Huawei and the Ontario government announced they would focus on 5G technology at the Chinese company’s Canada Research Centre in Kanata, Ont. In December, Huawei included Carleton University in its 5G research.

Mr. Adams, the former head of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), said Huawei has long been a concern to Canadian and U.S. spy services. CSE is Canada’s secretive signals intelligence agency.

“I would be very careful about getting engaged with Huawei,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t surprise me that the Americans are concerned about Huawei and no doubt especially concerned about what they may be doing in 5G.”

U.S. security officials say Huawei products and the new 5G technology provide China with the capacity to conduct remote spying and maliciously modify or steal information or even shut down systems.

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Fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile internet technology, which is not expected to be fully rolled out until 2020, promises to bring massively increased data speed and introduce wireless virtual and even remote surgery. It would make it possible to download a feature-like movie in a matter of seconds and is expected to lead to driverless smart cars and smart homes.

Mr. Fadden, who was also a CSIS director and national security adviser to prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, agreed that Huawei should not be a trusted partner in Canada’s telecommunications networks.

“I think Huawei is operating in an area of strategic interest to both Canada and China and I think it is a strategic interest area where you do not want to make available to a large Chinese company, with ties to the Chinese government, access to Canadian infrastructure,” Mr. Fadden said in an interview.

Mr. Goodale declined an interview request but his office provided a statement to The Globe, saying Ottawa is not ignoring Washington’s cybersecurity warnings about Huawei.

“The Government of Canada is aware of the concerns and takes the security of its critical infrastructure very seriously,” the Public Safety Minister’s office said. “Canadians can be assured that the government works diligently to monitor for security threats and that there are measures in place to protect Canada’s systems.”

Huawei Canada vice-president Scott Bradley said the world’s largest telecommunications manufacturer does not pose a threat to cybersecurity in Canada or the United States. The company has been operating in Canada since 2008 without any problems, he said.

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“All of Huawei Canada’s business and research operations are conducted in a manner that reflects the objectives of the government and operators on a number of measurements, including national security,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Bradley said Canada is a world leader in 5G and that Huawei’s investment in this technological research supports 700 jobs and contributes to a “thriving, competitive telecommunications ecosystem” in the country.

5G technology promises to offer consumers faster streaming content, but would also require a multitude of small cellphone base stations. This required expansion of infrastructure will mean lots of demand for telecom equipment from companies such as Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia or China’s Huawei.

A spokesman for Bell Canada would not comment on whether there were security risks with Huawei products. On Friday, Bell provided a brief statement to The Globe: “Huawei is one of our long-standing network infrastructure and mobile device partners.”

When he headed CSE between 2005 and 2012, Mr. Adams said his approach was to keep Huawei on the “peripheries where they could not hopefully do a helluva lot of damage.”

Mr. Adams said Ottawa hasn’t been nearly as aggressive with Huawei as the United States because it had wanted to encourage competition against the three main telecoms. Huawei has had a competitive advantage, largely because it has allegedly stolen Western technology and has not had to price in R&D, he said.

Huawei sells its smartphones in Canada – devices Mr. Elcock said he would never use – but it is not known whether its core switching equipment infrastructure is being used by Canadian telecoms firms.

The Chinese telecom behemoth, which operates in 170 countries, is running parts of Britain’s broadband and mobile infrastructure, but the British government says it has mitigated the threat by checking over Huawei equipment at a cyberevaluation centre for possible back doors, faults and bugs that could be exploited for espionage purposes. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre was created as a compromise between security misgivings and the private sector’s desire for cheap technology.

A Canadian industry source told The Globe that the CSE conducts similar tests of Huawei equipment, which the intelligence agency confirmed including verification of handsets for use in the Canadian market.

“In short, yes. CSE provides methodologies, advice and guidance on conducting commercial product assessments,” CSE spokesperson Ryan Foreman said in statement. “This is done in partnership with commercial evaluation facilities and international partners. Furthermore, a limited in-house capability exists for the evaluation of commercial products where additional assurance is warranted.”

Security and intelligence expert Wesley Wark, who teaches at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said CSE does not have the same capabilities as the British Huawei evaluation centre.

He argued that the federal and provincial governments should not buy any Huawei products, especially its 5G network.

“Any embedding of Huawei products in digital and information-critical infrastructure, especially at the federal government level, should be a no-go area,” he said.

During testimony to the U.S. Senate intelligence committee in mid-February, FBI Director Chris Wray said he was “deeply concerned about the risk of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to the foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.”

Huawei, founded by former Red Army officer Ren Zhenfei, has no public list of shareholders, but says it is privately owned and independent from the Chinese state.

China's Foreign Minister said Beijing will respond as necessary in the event of a trade war with the United States, and warned such a war would only harm all sides. Ryan Brooks reports. Reuters
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