Apparently, Huawei is being investigated in the US over suspicions that it may be collecting sensitive data from military bases

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According to two people with knowledge of the situation, the Biden administration is looking into the Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei over worries that US cell towers outfitted with its hardware could collect sensitive information from military bases and missile silos and send it to China.

One of the persons, who asked to remain anonymous because the probe is private and involves national security, said that authorities are concerned that Huawei could receive sensitive information through the equipment on military maneuvers and the readiness state of bases and soldiers.

According to the sources, the Commerce Department launched the previously unknown investigation soon after Joe Biden entered office in early last year. This was done after guidelines were put in place to clarify a May 2019 presidential order that granted the agency the authority to conduct investigations.

According to the 10-page document seen by Reuters, the government sent Huawei with a subpoena in April 2021 to learn more about the firm’s policies on disclosing to foreign parties data that its equipment could obtain from cell phones, including as messages and geolocational information.

The Department of Commerce stated that it was unable to “confirm or deny ongoing investigations.” In order to safeguard our economic and national security, it was also stated that “protecting US citizens’ safety and security against nefarious information collection is essential.” Requests for comment from Huawei were not answered. The business has categorically disputed the claims made by the US government that it may eavesdrop on US consumers and otherwise represent a threat to national security.

The precise accusations received no response from the Chinese embassy in Washington. “The US government abuses the concept of national security and state power to go to great lengths to suppress Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies without providing any solid evidence that they constitute a security threat to the US and other countries,” it was stated in an email statement. Reuters was unable to ascertain what steps the agency might use to penalize Huawei. According to eight current and former US government sources, the investigation of the corporation, which has already been subject to a number of US restrictions in recent years, indicates ongoing national security concerns.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US telecoms regulator, may impose more limitations if the Commerce Department decides Huawei constitutes a national security concern. According to a number of lawyers, academics, and former officials contacted by Reuters, the agency could use broad new powers granted by the Trump administration to ban all US transactions with Huawei and order US telecoms carriers that still use its equipment to remove it immediately under threat of fines or other penalties. The FCC chose not to respond.

US-China Tech Conflict

The US government has long accused Huawei of spying on US customers, despite the fact that Washington has not made many of these charges publicly available. The claims are refuted by the corporation.

In a lecture in 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “Chinese businesses like Huawei might capture any of your information that traverses their devices or networks if they are given unrestricted access to our telecommunications infrastructure.” Even worse, if questioned, they would be forced to provide it over to the Chinese government.

Whether Huawei’s tools are able to gather this kind of private data and give it to China is unknown to Reuters. “You can gather intelligence if you can mount a receiver on a (cellphone) tower and collect signals. No intelligence organization would miss such a chance, “Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity and technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank based in Washington, DC, stated. A 2019 bill and related regulations prohibiting US corporations from utilizing federal subsidies to purchase Huawei telecom equipment was one step taken to combat the perceived threat. It also gave the FCC the responsibility of pressuring US carriers that receive federal subsidies to remove Huawei equipment from their networks in exchange for payment.

However, the so-called “tear and replace” deadline to entirely remove and destroy Huawei equipment won’t start until at least mid-2023, with extra options for businesses to request extensions. And for the time being, refunds will only cover 40% of the total amount asked.

Nearby missile silos, towers

According to the two sources and an FCC commissioner, cell towers with Huawei equipment that are adjacent to key military and intelligence locations have come to the attention of the US government. One of the five FCC commissioners, Brendan Carr, said that Huawei was used in the cell towers near Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three that watch over missile bases in the country.

He told Reuters in an interview this week that there was a chance Huawei’s acquisition of smartphone data could expose army activities close to the sites. The possibility that some of that equipment may be employed as an early warning system in the event of, God forbid, an ICBM missile strike, is a very real danger. The precise location or scope of Huawei equipment using military facilities remained unknown to Reuters. Reuters spoke with several people who identified at least two other possible occurrences in Nebraska and Wyoming.

Crystal Rhoades, a commissioner at Nebraska’s telecoms regulator, has alerted the media to the danger presented by Viaero-owned mobile towers’ closeness to ICBM silos in the state’s western region. Nuclear warheads are kept in subterranean silos close to military facilities and are carried by ICBMs to targets thousands of kilometres away. The FE Warren Air Force Base in nearby Wyoming is in charge of the missile field that is close to the Nebraska cell towers.

About 110,000 users in the area receive mobile phone and wireless broadband services from Viaero. In a 2018 filing to the FCC, it claimed that almost 80% of its equipment was produced by the Chinese company, arguing against the commission’s attempts to restrain Huawei’s growth. According to Rhoades, who spoke to Reuters in June, this equipment might potentially allow Huawei to get private information about the sites. In any given building where there are highly lethal and sophisticated weaponry, “an enemy state could theoretically observe when things are online, when they are offline, the level of security, and how many people are on duty,” Rhoades said.

Despite asking Viaero for new information in recent weeks, Rhoades claimed in July that she had not received any updates on the company’s rip and replace efforts in more than two years. The corporation has previously stated that it would wait until the FCC funding became available to start removal efforts. On Monday, the FCC informed businesses of the percentage of their funding requests that it could cover. Numerous requests for comment to Viaero were not answered. Huawei also choose not to respond.

In an interview with Reuters in 2018, Wyoming’s former CEO of rural carrier Union Wireless, John Woody, mentioned that the company’s service region included ICBM silos close to FE Warren Air Force Base and that its gear included Huawei switches, routers, and cell sites. The acting CEO and son of John Woody stated last month that “almost all the Huawei equipment Union purchased remains in our network.” He choose not to say whether Huawei equipment is present in the towers adjacent to the secure military sites.

The Pentagon was consulted over comments regarding Huawei equipment by FE Warren Air Force Base. We constantly monitor actions near our installations and sites, the United States Strategic Command, which is in charge of nuclear operations, said in a statement to Reuters. Although it stated that “any worries are on a whole of government level,” it omitted to elaborate on what exactly those concerns are.

New capabilities against foreign foes

The Commerce Department investigation may give the FCC’s crackdown more bite, but Rick Sofield, a former DOJ officer in the national security division who investigated telecoms transactions, said there was nothing novel about targeting Huawei. “Any information or communications technology company that continues to use Huawei products is assuming the risk that the US government will come knocking,” said Sofield, who represents US and foreign companies subject to US national security reviews. “The US government’s concerns regarding Huawei are widely known.” He said he hadn’t done any work for Huawei.

According to the executive order and accompanying guidelines, the Commerce Department is employing authority provided in 2019 that enables it to prohibit or limit transactions between US firms and internet, telecom, and tech companies from “foreign adversary” countries including Russia and China. One of the first cases to be handled by the Biden administration under the expanded powers, according to the two sources familiar with the Huawei investigation and a former government official, was sent to Commerce in early 2021.

Reuters’ requests for comments were forwarded to Commerce via the Justice Department. The subpoena was issued on April 13, 2021, the same day that Commerce declared that a document request had been issued under the new authority to an undisclosed Chinese corporation. For the past seven years, Huawei must provide “records identifying Huawei’s business transactions and relationships with foreign entities located outside of the United States, including foreign government agencies or parties, that have access to, or that share in any capacity, the US user data collected by Huawei.” Huawei has 30 days to comply.

It requests Huawei to provide a comprehensive list of “all types of equipment sold” to “any communications provider in the United States,” along with the names and locations of the parties to the sale, noting that the “focus of this investigation is the provisioning of mobile network and telecommunications equipment…by Huawei in the United States.”

 

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