The New York Times reported over the weekend, based on files provided by Edward Snowden, that the National Security Agency has been hacking into the servers of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.* The story is not particularly surprising, though it is somewhat ironic given that for years, the U.S. government has been warning that Huawei’s servers aren’t safe given the risk of spying by Chinese intelligence.
In 2012, for instance, the House Intelligence Committee issued a blistering report on Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese company, highlighting “the potential security threat posed by Chinese telecommunications companies with potential ties to the Chinese government or military.”
Huawei, which is the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer and was founded in 1988 by Ren Zhenfei , a former director of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department’s Information Engineering Academy, has been the poster child for concerns about the growing global clout of Chinese companies with close ties to the state.
Because of security concerns, Washington has effectively blocked Huawei from doing business in the United States—the company announced it was pulling out of the U.S. market last year—but it has continued to expand globally, particularly in Africa where it now has offices in 18 countries and is in some cases effectively running national telecommunications networks on behalf of governments.
U.S. lawmakers have often tried to portray Huawei as essentially an intelligence agency masquerading as a tech company, but as a number of critics of the House committee report—including Farhad Manjoo in Slate—pointed out back in 2012, there’s been almost no evidence made public of Huawei passing information to the Chinese government. Huawei itself made this point very publicly. A 2012 60 Minutes feature on the company quotes an expert saying, “In China, a company is a Chia pet. The state tells them what to do, and they do it,” before quickly noting that “there is no hard evidence that’s happened with Huawei.”
This isn’t to say that everything’s aboveboard with Huawei. It would be shocking if Chinese intelligence services didn’t have some backdoor way of spying on the company’s servers. It also seems likely that U.S. officials have been so suspicious of the company because this kind of surveillance is exactly the sort of thing they would do.
The Edward Snowden revelations are the gift that keeps on giving for China. After years of the U.S. government raising concerns about Chinese cyber-attacks and online espionage, stories like these make it look as though the NSA was simply trying to sideline its competition.
The next time U.S. officials try to urge another country to reconsider doing business with Huawei due to concerns about data security—as they successfully did with South Korea last month—they may have a harder time being taken seriously.
*Correction, March 24, 2014: This post originally misstated the name of the National Security Agency.