Last week, senior U.S. officials warned their British counterparts that letting Chinese telecom giants like Huawei build next-generation 5G internet infrastructure would be “nothing short of madness” for national security. The comments follow a Council of the European Union (EU) conclusion that 5G must respect “core values of the EU such as human rights,” and must not expose European citizens to danger on account of the “legal and policy framework to which suppliers may be subject to in third countries.” Huawei fails these tests.
The EU has previously spoken out against China’s repression and mass detention of its minority Muslim population. Leaked classified documents from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) confirm the systemic human rights abuses occurring in Xinjiang Province. Yet Europe risks doing business with the same technology firms facilitating these abuses.
Across all of China, the CCP seeks to monitor its population through a social credit system. But within Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have built a system of unmatched surveillance and social control facilitated by facial recognition scans, voice biometric data, DNA collection, and artificial intelligence for racial profiling.
Now, with alarming frequency, reports are surfacing about Huawei’s core role in this systemic repression. An in-depth study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) — the same research institute that first revealed that Huawei lay at the heart of massive data theft from the African Union headquarters — has now uncovered Huawei’s direct role in supporting the repression in Xinjiang. Huawei provides cloud computing power and other technical support to the police departments and provincial government in Xinjiang, including to the U.S.-sanctioned Public Security Bureau.
Huawei executives previously testified before the UK House of Commons that Huawei had no contracts in Xinjiang. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise, according to the ASPI report. Provincial leaders have even praised Huawei’s contributions to the “Safe Xinjiang” initiative, a euphemism for the government’s surveillance system.
For Huawei, a company with close political and financial ties and legal obligations to the CCP, building Europe’s 5G infrastructure would represent a sea change in China’s technological reach.
The U.S. is sounding the alarm. Last Monday, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill’s Morning Report – House prosecutes Trump as ‘lawless,’ ‘corrupt’ Overnight Defense: Trump downplays troops’ concussion injuries in Iran attack | Dems offer case against Trump on day two of trial | UN links Saudis to hack of Bezos’ phone Pompeo willing to testify in impeachment trial if ‘legally required’ MORE described “massive security and privacy risks connected to letting Huawei construct their 5G networks inside (our allies’ and partners’) countries.” In an op-ed last month, he warned his European counterparts, “With 5G capabilities, the CCP could use Huawei or ZTE’s access to steal private or proprietary information, or use ‘kill switches’ to disrupt critical future applications like electrical grids and telesurgery centers.”
Beyond these economic and national security threats, the CCP — one of the world’s worst human rights violators and an “abuser of internet freedom,” according to Freedom House — could use the same access to threaten Uighurs living abroad.
Already, the Chinese government harasses Uighur Muslims in Europe, conveying threats against vulnerable relatives in China to curb any criticisms of the regime’s behavior. To date, this CCP campaign has consisted of already widely available techniques and technologies to pursue dissidents abroad, like targeted robocalls and surveillance.
Embedding Huawei 5G in Europe threatens to change all that.
Huawei is a global leader in surveillance cities, exporting its ability to suppress human freedom, including to eager despots. If Huawei wins the contracts to build Europe’s 5G infrastructure, the Chinese government will enjoy unprecedented access to its civilian opponents.
China makes no secret of its desire to be the world leader in artificial intelligence, whether by competition or flagrant theft. The personal data of Chinese ex-pat communities running through a Huawei mega-network in Europe would be highly valuable for the CCP’s efforts to build AI systems capable of identifying “undesirable” individuals, whether because they oppose the Xi regime or pray the wrong way.
Though the CCP hardly needs more suggestions for how to abuse this power, a cursory review of the risks suggests it would allow for the hyper-specific targeting of European citizens. Once inside 5G networks, the Chinese Communist Party would gain access to the “most intimate” details of European citizens, warned U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Chinese operators could block or manipulate certain online information — or disable devices as part of a broader operation.
Europe may finally be waking up to the danger.
Following an outpouring of American alarm at the prospect of a Chinese-built 5G, European nations are acknowledging that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei poses a threat to European security.
But they must also recognize the danger to Europe’s core values: The combination of CCP ruthlessness and Huawei technology threatens human rights.
European leaders are now at a crossroads. They can save $62 billion and roll out 5G infrastructure quickly with a baked-in Trojan horse. Or they can patiently develop their own secure networks through local giants like Nokia and Ericsson or South Korea’s Samsung.
If Europe’s leaders choose the quick and easy route, their citizens will finally know the selling price of their security, privacy, and freedom.
Annie Fixler is the deputy director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Mikhael Smits is a research analyst at FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. Follow them on Twitter @afixler and @mikhaelsmits