The US says Huawei has been spying through 'backdoors' designed for law enforcement - which is what the US has been pressuring tech companies to do for years
- The US government accused Huawei of spying on people by exploiting telecoms backdoors intended for use by law enforcement, the Wall Street Journal reports.
- The US has repeatedly accused Huawei of spying for the Chinese government, but this is the first detail it's ever given about how it thinks Huawei does it. Huawei denies the allegation.
- The US government has been pressuring tech companies like Apple and Facebook to build vulnerabilities for law enforcement to access encrypted devices and messages for years.
- Tech companies have argued against building backdoors, as they argue malicious actors would be able to exploit them.
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The US accused Huawei of spying on people through technological "backdoors" intended for use by law enforcement, the Wall Street Journal reports.
According to the Journal, US officials say Huawei has had this technology for over a decade. The US kept this information highly classified until late 2019 when it started sharing it with selected allies including Germany and the UK in a bid to get them to freeze out Huawei equipment from their 5G networks.
The US has long accused Huawei of acting as a conduit for Chinese government spying, but this is the first time it's provided precise details of exactly how it thinks Huawei does this. Huawei has repeatedly denied that it spies for China.
Specifically officials said Huawei has built equipment that allows it to tap into telecoms using interfaces intended only designed for law enforcement without alerting the carriers. "Huawei does not disclose this covert access to its local customers, or the host nation national-security agencies," the Journal cited a senior US official as saying.
Officials were non-specific about whether they've observed Huawei exploiting this access, and didn't give technical details other than to say they'd first spotted it in 2009 on 4G equipment.
Huawei was not immediately available for comment on the Journal's report when contacted by Business Insider, but a spokesperson told the Journal:
"We emphatically reject these latest allegations. Again, groundless accusations are being repeated without providing any kind of concrete evidence."
The perils of building backdoors
This latest allegation against Huawei highlights a security argument which the US has been wrangling with tech companies for years - whether it's safe to build privacy vulnerabilities for use by law enforcement.
The US has pressured big tech companies to build methods for allowing law enforcement to circumvent security measures like encryption for years.
In 2015 the FBI started a long-running feud with Apple when it asked for the company's help breaking into the iPhone of a mass-shooter. Apple refused on the basis that its encryption means it doesn't have access to customers' passwords, and building any security flaw which would allow the FBI to break in by other means would mean weakening its security overall.
The case led to a huge standoff between Apple and the government, which Apple eventually won when the FBI announced it had found a third party to unlock the iPhone and dropped the case. More recently however the FBI has requested Apple's help opening another iPhone, and President Trump lashed out at the tech giant for "refus[ing] to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements."
Meanwhile Attorney General William Barr has been pressuring Facebook to build methods for law enforcement to access encrypted messaging on WhatsApp, and asked it to hold off on encrypting its other messaging services.
Digital Rights and Regulation expert Dr Michael Veale told Business Insider the pressure to build backdoors in encrypted services is dangerous.
"Cryptography is so heavily relied on by financial services, businesses, electronic commerce, whistleblowers, journalists and governments. Introducing backdoors weakens the Internet for everyone, and leaves it so much more vulnerable to everyone from cybercrime rings to authoritarian regimes," he said.
The US government's allegation that Huawei has exploited a similar mechanism in telecoms equipment would lend weight to this argument.
Veale added that governments should invest in investigative powers that use the vast amount of internet data that isn't encrypted.
"The world isn't 'going dark' to law enforcement because of encryption; law enforcement are going blind to the huge amount of unencrypted data that is available to help investigations. It does not follow that because criminals, like all of us, now communicate online, catching them should become as simple as a web search. If anything, this new encryption debate highlights the greediness, laziness, and cost-cutting desires of national governments, and their willingness to throw fundamental rights and economic trust under a bus in search of a shortcut to avoid investing in proper investigative capacity."
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