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Huawei is better positioned to spy on us than we think

The United States shares the blame.

- March 12, 2019

The United States and its allies are arguing over whether governments should use telecommunications equipment manufactured by Huawei. In March 2018, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai proposed banning local communities from using the FCC’s Universal Service Fund to buy equipment from Huawei. In 2012, a House Intelligence Committee report argued in favor of barring Huawei from any U.S. mergers or acquisitions, arguing that it was an arm of the Chinese government and a threat to national security. The Trump administration is trying to persuade its allies to block Huawei from contracts to build 5G wireless networks, arguing that Huawei equipment might have built-in back doors that would allow the Chinese government to monitor others’ communications. Some allies are following the United States’ lead; others, including close allies such as Britain, are resisting.

However, 5G is not the only important communications network. In other parts of the world such as Latin America and Africa, Huawei is laying the submarine cables that carry most long-distance communications traffic. Other countries are more willing to work with Huawei because they know that the United States, too, has tapped into global cable networks.

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Huawei is building big parts of the world cable network

On Sept. 4, the South Atlantic Inter Link (or SAIL, for short) went live, connecting Fortaleza, Brazil, to Kribi, Cameroon. This international submarine cable, which was buried just below the sea floor across the entire South Atlantic, is a new link in a network of cables that connect the globe and carry more than 95 percent of international communications traffic. SAIL was constructed by Huawei Marine and funded through a partnership with China Unicom, a state-owned Chinese telecommunications company.

Before SAIL went live, the only cable connecting South America with a continent other than North America was a semi-obsolete cable to Portugal laid in the late 1990s. In September, the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS), funded by Angolan firms and constructed by the Japanese company NEC, also entered service between Brazil and Africa. Three more cables are planned to connect Brazil directly to Spain, Angola and South Africa.

In the past, firms from the United States and Europe initiated and built such projects. But companies like Huawei are increasing their share of the international network. In addition to new connections in and around China, Huawei Marine has been laying cables and updating old systems on both coasts of Africa, throughout Latin America and in the Mediterranean.

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For instance, in 2015, Huawei upgraded the West Africa Cable System (WACS), which runs along the entire western coast of Europe and Africa from Britain to South Africa. In 2012, it did the same for MedNautilus in the Mediterranean. Huawei is currently constructing the Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) cable, which will connect the three continents sometime after 2020.

This Huawei expansion concerns some U.S. allies. In 2017, Australia raised red flags over a proposed international cable project between Sydney and the Solomon Islands to its north, explicitly citing security concerns over Huawei’s involvement. The Australian government then funded the $78 million project itself.

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International cables give governments an enormous opportunity to collect information from other governments, businesses and private citizens alike — because all communications must flow through them. In the 1970s, the United States began Operation Ivy Bells to spy on submarine cables laid by the Soviet Union. Examples of such espionage date back at least as far as World War I, with Britain intercepting German communications.

However, some countries are as worried about U.S. surveillance as they are about Chinese threats. In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting international communications traffic traveling through the United States using these cables. The leak suggested that it was risky for other countries to have cables built by U.S. firms that almost exclusively went through the United States.

After the leak, South American governments, especially Brazil’s, became increasingly concerned about depending on the United States to communicate with the rest of the world. In a 2014 address to the European Union, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff argued: “We have to respect privacy, human rights and the sovereignty of nations. We don’t want businesses to be spied upon.”

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Five years later, Brazil and others are accomplishing this goal by splitting up their international connections among firms based in a variety of countries. While Chinese firms are working on SAIL, other connections are being built by companies such as France’s Alcatel. No two new cables are being built to the same country.

European and North American governments are worried that China might spy on their telecommunications traffic through imported technologies. But the Chinese-built submarine cables mean that international transmissions are already at risk and likely to become more vulnerable in the years ahead.

By taking advantage of the opportunity to tap into the world’s communications network, the U.S. government has damaged its ability to counter the expansion of Chinese and non-U.S. firms. Its current efforts to constrain Huawei and other Chinese firms in Europe do not address other countries’ lack of confidence in the proposed American alternatives.

Jack Hasler (@jhasler0) is a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University.