On May 15 the U.S. government put Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and nearly all its affiliates and subsidiaries on an export black list, which prohibits American firms from selling them high-tech products. Much has been made of Huawei’s position in global telecoms and the role it might play in Chinese surveillance of, well, everyone. The American decision largely ends the concern.
To this point I’ve tried to stay out of the Huawei battles for a pair of reasons. First, the people who really know what is going on when it comes to global data surveillance either do not talk publicly about it or have a vested interest in lying. In the former camp sits the United States National Security Agency, the institution responsible for monitoring global electronic communications. In the latter is the Chinese intelligence directorate, who would like to monitor global electronic communications.
Back in the 1960s, the American government started collaborating with the U.K. government on a global monitoring system known as Echelon, a sort of semi-public codename for the series of satellites, towers, fiber optic taps, server farms and software backdoors that span the planet. Echelon soon expanded to include the Anglophone allies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, becoming the core of what is known today as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Echelon’s original raison d’etre was to battle the Soviets, and in time it found new life in the Global War on Terror. According to informed scuttlebutt, if a communication is transmitted using electrons, Echelon sees it.
Or at least it used to. Telecoms have evolved radically in the past half century. Even before the recent fascination of all parties with encryption, the simple fact the United States is no longer the middleman in all telecoms traffic means Echelon is more a tool of yesterday than today, much less tomorrow. Regardless, the ability to scan, read or listen for key words remains essential to America’s tech-heavy intelligence gathering networks.
Enter the Chinese, who found themselves behind the Americans by several decades, and that before considering China lacks the alliance system to create anything of Echelon’s depth or scale. Beijing’s bid to catch up is Huawei, a massive telecoms firm which produces everything from the fiber optic cables and telecoms towers of the physical internet to the phones and computers needed to connect.
While the internet is an infamously unorganized mass of connections, the modern network has central exchange points where the tributaries of information coming from all over the world become torrential flows. Such “core” systems are what Huawei is after. Control the cores and a spy is wired into everything that passes through it.
Huawei’s corporate strategy – which is to say, the strategy of China’s intelligence services – is to grant massive discounts on the installation of a network’s less critical bits on the condition that Huawei can also install and maintain the cores.