Telus Corp. has gear from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. in its 4G wireless network in the National Capital Region – headquarters for much of Canada’s federal government – in apparent contravention of an understanding that it would not use the Chinese firm’s equipment there.
The Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, which allocates wireless spectrum and sets conditions for its use, has been pressing Telus to remove Huawei gear from the area. In private conversations with the government, Telus has rejected the notion it made a pledge to the department, according to sources who The Globe and Mail is not identifying because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.
Publicly available data from the department include the locations of cell towers and cell sites across Canada and which manufacturers’ gear is in them.
This government database shows nearly 70 locations on the Ottawa side of the National Capital Region alone where Telus cell sites or cell towers have Huawei equipment. It also shows 13 locations in Gatineau. Each site often includes multiple transmitter-receivers and antennas.
National security sources say that, years ago, Telus reached an understanding with the Department of Industry, now renamed Innovation, Science and Economic Development, that it would not put Huawei gear in cellular networks in the National Capital Region. The commitment was voluntary and it was not drawn up as a formal agreement, according to sources, whom The Globe is not identifying because they are bound by secrecy oaths.
After making this commitment, Telus used gear from a Western telecom equipment maker, possibly Finnish telecom equipment maker Nokia Corp., in cellular sites around the region. This includes sites near the headquarters of many government departments, the RCMP, the Bank of Canada, the National Research Council and security agencies.
But at some point, the sources said, Telus replaced it with Huawei equipment.
Security experts warn that is a potential national security risk.
Andrew Ellis, a former assistant director of operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the decision to switch out the old equipment in favour of Huawei 4G telecommunications gear in Telus’s network in the Ottawa-area is a serious mistake.
Mr. Ellis said Huawei is not a trusted vendor because it is beholden to Beijing and obligated under Chinese law to spy and share intelligence at the request of state security services.
“Allowing Huawei around sensitive, even insensitive, government institutions is problematic because it is an organization that is a statutory arm of the Chinese government, and in so doing, it has to follow all the rules of the Chinese government including the intelligence act,” he said. “So to allow them anywhere near government infrastructure, whether it is secure infrastructure or otherwise, is a mistake.”
Martijn Rasser, senior fellow on technology and security at the Centre for New American Security, said Canada and the United Kingdom test Huawei equipment and keep it out of sensitive areas because the Chinese telecom giant is a security threat.
“The fact that Telus is doing this on its 4G networks in the Ottawa capital region is concerning, and it poses a risk,” he said. “It is a very bizarre decision.”
The Innovation department refused comment, citing national security.
“The government of Canada regularly engages with telecommunications companies on a variety of topics,” Genevieve Sicard, the department’s manager of media relations, said in a statement. “We cannot publicly discuss advice given by our national security experts.”
The Communications Security Establishment (CSE), the federal agency in charge of cybersecurity, would say only: “With respect to Telus’ 4G networks and due to our non-disclosure agreements, questions about their networks should be directed to them.”
Telus said it couldn’t comment on discussions with Ottawa, but emphasized that it has been very transparent with the government about where it uses Huawei gear. It also said everything it has done is in compliance with a security review program run by the CSE.
“While we aren’t able to comment on specific discussions, we have been very clear with the federal government and key stakeholders about our use of Huawei in the non-sensitive portion of our network,” Carey Frey, vice-president and chief security officer at Telus, said in an e-mailed statement.
“We continue to be fully compliant with the obligations of the security review program which governs those matters.”
Carol DeMatteo, a spokesperson for Nokia, said: “This isn’t something we are commenting on.”
When the former Conservative government allowed Huawei into the Canadian telecommunications market in 2012, it excluded the high-risk Chinese telecom from security-critical “core” networks, government telecommunications and sensitive locations.
It mandated that CSE set up independent labs, funded by Huawei, to test the equipment for backdoors and malware.
The United States has been urging allies to freeze out Huawei from super-fast 5G networks on the grounds it believes the company aids Chinese state spying.
Shenzhen-based Huawei, founded by a former general in the People’s Liberation Army, already supplies components to major Canadian telecom firms.
Earlier this month, BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada announced it will buy gear from Swedish supplier Ericsson, and won’t use Huawei equipment for future 5G networks unless Ottawa permits it. Rogers Communications Inc. has also decided to use Ericsson 5G gear.
Telus, which said in February that it would launch its 5G service with Huawei gear, in June announced partnerships with Ericsson and Nokia, but did not back away from the Chinese company.
Canada has yet to decide whether to ban Huawei from this country’s 5G network.
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