Is China spying on—the US?

This question had lingered among US tech consumers and the government over the last few years, with the turning point in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump signed an NDAA that banned several Chinese-based technologies from coming to America.

President Joe Biden continued the decoupling when he took office last year, banning dozens of Chinese companies from supplying US equipment, especially those used in military, intelligence, and security research and development.

Over a month following the release of its latest executive order, the Biden administration is once again poking around one of China’s largest telecommunication equipment companies, Huawei, for possible spying and intelligence gathering.

Unreported investigation out in the open

In an exclusive report last Thursday, Reuters said that the government is probing Huawei over concerns about capturing sensitive information from military bases and missile silos and allegedly transmitting it to the Chinese government.

According to one of the two anonymous experts, this unreported investigation was transferred to the Commerce Department after implementation rules to flesh out May 2019 executive order was approved soon after Biden took office last year. Keeping their identities in the dark, Reuters said that the agency has been looking into whether or not the Chinese company is capturing sensitive information from the US, including confidential data on military drills and readiness status.

 

In April last year, the Commerce Department subpoenaed Huawei to learn the latter’s policy “on sharing data with foreign parties that its equipment could capture from cell phones, including messages and geolocational data,” Reuters reported.

When asked for comments regarding the matter, the agency could not “confirm or deny ongoing investigations,” adding that “protecting U.S. persons’ safety and security against malign information collection is vital to protecting our economy and national security.”

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Reuters asked Huawei for comment, but the Chinese company did not respond. However, the company has strongly denied the US government’s allegations that they could spy on US customers and pose a national security threat since the issue first arose.

Once proven guilty, what then?

While it is unclear what actions the agency will take once the Chinese company has been proven to be spying, the investigation shows that the company remains a threat to national security.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US telecoms regulator, is likely to step in to impose more stringent restrictions, including a total shutdown of all US transactions with Huawei, which is possible under the “broad new powers created by the Trump administration,” according to Reuters.

However, Reuters stated that it was unable to determine whether the Huawei chips and devices were truly capable of collecting such sensitive information and transmitting it to China.

Brendan Carr, one of the FCC’s five commissioners, stated that cellphone towers around Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three in the United States that oversee missile bases, used Huawei technology. He told Reuters that there was a chance that data from Huawei’s smartphones could reveal troop movements near the sites.

“There’s a very real concern that some of that technology could be used as an early warning system if there happened to be, God forbid, an ICBM missile strike,” Carr noted.

Reuters could not determine the precise location and scope of Huawei equipment operating near military facilities. However, the news agency identified at least two other possible cases investigated in Nebraska and Wyoming.

Huawei equipment on cell towers

A commissioner at Nebraska’s telecoms regulator, Crystal Rhoades, has also warned the media about the risk posed by Viaero cell towers’ proximity to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in the state’s west.

In a 2018 FCC filing, Viaero, which provides mobile telephone and wireless broadband services to approximately 110,000 customers in the region, stated that Huawei manufactures about 80% of its equipment.

In June, Rhoades told Reuters that the number of devices could allow the Chinese firm to snoop around sensitive information about the sites.

“An enemy state could potentially see when things are online, when things are offline, the level of security, how many people are on duty in any given building where there are really dangerous and sophisticated weapons,” Rhoades said.

This month, the commissioner updated the news agency, saying she hadn’t heard from Viaero in more than two years about their “rip and replace” efforts. When last contacted, the company stated that it would not begin removal efforts until the FCC funds were available.

This so-called “rip and replace” was part of the initiative to remove and destroy all Huawei equipment in the country, but it will not begin until mid-2023 due to extensions requested by companies.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the acting CEO of the rural carrier Union Wireless, Eric Woody, said, “virtually all the Huawei gear Union purchased remains in our network.” He, however, refused to comment on whether Huawei equipment is installed in the towers near sensitive military sites.

Eric’s father, former CEO John Woody, mentioned in 2018 that the ICBM silos near the F.E. Warren Air Force Base were within the company’s coverage area and had Huawei switches, routers, and cell sites.