Update: Hours after this story posted, the Justice Department unveiled sweeping charges against Huawei. For more, click here.
Forget about the wall and worry about the back door.
That’s my takeaway from Sunday’s eye-opening — and somewhat scary — front-page story in The New York Times about the US government’s efforts to persuade allies and other countries to shun next-generation mobile phone networks made by Huawei Technologies and other Chinese companies.
Unlike President Trump’s phony immigration crisis, China’s potential ability to infiltrate so-called 5G networks is a real security threat. This time, the president has it right.
“Nervousness about Chinese technology has long existed in the United States, fueled by the fear that the Chinese could insert a ‘back door’ into telecom and computing networks that would allow Chinese security services to intercept military, government and corporate communications,” according to the Times story by David E. Sanger, Julian E. Barnes, Raymond Zhong, and Marc Santora. “But the concern has taken on more urgency as countries around the world begin deciding which equipment providers will build their 5G networks.”
What is 5G? It’s the fifth generation of mobile technology that AT&T, Verizon, and other phone companies around the globe are beginning to roll out. But more than just providing faster downloads of YouTube videos, 5G networks are, as the Times explains, the first “built to serve the sensors, robots, autonomous vehicles and other devices that will continuously feed each other vast amounts of data, allowing factories, construction sites and even whole cities to be run with less moment-to-moment human intervention.”
In other words, if there is ever a real Matrix, it will run on 5G.
Huawei (pronounced “hwa-way”) is China’s largest supplier of telecom gear. The United States fears that the company and other Chinese suppliers are willing or unwilling participants in Beijing’s corporate and military espionage efforts.
Installing their equipment, the argument goes, would give China’s leaders the ability to monitor communications, hack into computer systems, and steal military and trade secrets.
Huawei denies that it is controlled by or works for the Chinese government, and the United States has offered no hard evidence to back up its concerns, even as it has blocked Huawei from the US 5G market and pushes countries including Poland to do the same.
Huawei’s image has been hurt by the December arrest in Canada — at the behest of US officials — of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive and daughter of the company’s founder, on charges that she defrauded banks to help Huawei evade sanctions against Iran. Earlier this month a Huawei employee was arrested in Poland on charges of spying.
On Monday, the feds turned up the heat. The Justice Department unsealed criminal sanctions charges against Huawei, two of its subsidiaries, and Meng.
The company was also charged in a separate case with stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile, according to federal prosecutors.
The US-China tariff spat is just a sideshow for this bigger fight over how to protect the security of 5G networks. And it’s a hard fight to win. The Internet is global, and there will always be places where China — and let’s not forget the Russians and North Koreans — could slip through a back door.
The US government does its fair share of spying on enemies and friends alike. So it’s hard to blame the Chinese for trying to keep up.
We can only hope that the both countries eventually find it in their best interests to be competitors, but not enemies.
But until that day arrives, the Trump administration — for all its lying, mistakes, and cynical policies — is right to sound the alarm about China and 5G. The balance of economic and military power may hinge on that back door.