Chinese telecom giant Huawei technologies has been thrust into the international spotlight after it was revealed the company’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver on Saturday.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, is facing possible extradition to the United States. While details of her case are sparse, reports say she is suspected of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
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The telecom giant sells cellphones, but also sells equipment that is part of the global roll-out of the fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks. Western countries, including the U.S. and Australia, have warned that Huawei technology could be used for undetected surveillance or intelligence gathering.
“They do far more than phones,” national security expert and Carleton University professor Stephanie Carvin said. “Bell systems, Rogers… they use Huawei technology to actually build the backbone of our telephone and internet network here in Canada.”
In April, Rogers announced an agreement with European company Ericsson to build its 5G network.
“We announced a national infrastructure agreement with Ericsson and we are partnering with them to build our network,” said spokesperson Michelle Kelly in a statement.
Former CSIS director Ward Elcock told Global News that having a Chinese company be so critical to telecom infrastructure should be raise red flags for Canadian officials.
“All Chinese companies at the end of the day, and probably to a great degree, are susceptible to being pressured to do things for the People’s Republic of China,” Elcock said. “Chinese technology, in a lot of places in the world, could be used as a mechanism for intelligence gathering.”
Huawei has denied any improper links to the Chinese government or that it is collecting data on their behalf.
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While Canada hasn’t specifically banned private companies from using Huawei technologies, others around the world have. Here is who’s done what and where.
Britain: Last week, British phone carrier BT said it was removing Huawei tech from mobile phone networks, but it continued to use it as a supplier of other equipment. The government has not interceded, saying it has procedures to test for malicious equipment.
New Zealand: In November, the government of the Pacific nation blocked a mobile phone company from using Huawei technology.
Australia: In August, Australia banned the company, along with ZTE, another Chinese firm, from working on its 5G network. China retaliated and blocked the website of Australia’s public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
United States: The U.S. government has taken a series of steps to block the firm from U.S. markets, including banning government purchases of Huawei gear and denying government help to any carrier that uses Huawei equipment. Top carriers Verizon Communications and AT&T pulled out of deals to distribute Huawei smartphones earlier this year.
What has Canada done?
Canada is currently reviewing Huawei technology. At a briefing about cyber threats, Scott Jones, director of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, refused to comment on Meng’s arrest, but said Canadian cyber-authorities are ready in case of any retaliation from China that could target the country’s communications infrastructure.
“We always have to be resilient, no matter what the possible trigger could be,” Jones said. “We are working very closely with the broader security community.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he knew in advance of the pending arrest in Canada, but that there was no political involvement in the decision to detain Meng.
“The appropriate authorities took the decisions in this case,” Trudeau told reporters. “We were advised by them with a few days notice that this was in the works, but of course there was no engagement or involvement at the political level in this decision because we respect the independence of our judicial processes.”
Elcock says officials at the Government Communications Headquarters and Communications Security Establishment currently review devices and technology for any vulnerabilities.
A back door is where the manufacturer leaves a way for themselves to access a device’s data without going through the proper channels.
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U.S. lawmakers have urged Canada to ban Huawei technology from private firms. But the company has become increasingly entwined with Canadian telecom companies and is a key supplier of parts to Bell, Telus and Rogers.
It’s currently a major sponsor of Hockey Night in Canada.
The charges against Meng have not been release, but reports say she was arrested in connection with violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. It’s not certain if the security concerns from her company will be a factor in the charges. She is expected to appear for a bail hearing Friday in Vancouver.
China has called for Canada to release Meng, saying she broke no U.S. or Canadian laws.
The telecom giant is a “national champion for China,” Carvin said, saying she was worried about possible retaliation from China. “This is one of the brands that flies the Chinese flag high.”
“It puts Canada in a very difficult position between the United States and China. I suspect the Chinese are going to be very upset about this,” Elcock agreed.
“The Chinese are likely to play tit-for-tat on this one and we should be ready for it,” Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Centre for Governance Innovation, told The Canadian Press.
WATCH: Conservatives urge Liberals to ban Huawei after arrest of its CFO
Meanwhile, Jones said Canada has to be prepared for retaliation at all times, not just because of this incident.
“One of the key things is we always have to be resilient no matter what the trigger might be,” Jones said Thursday.
Experts have cautioned that retaliation could come in many forms, including arresting Canadian citizens in China, or attacking Canadian goods in trade policies.
“If I was a canola farmer, I would be very nervous because China has in the past used certain agricultural products as weapons in its trade policies,” Carvin said, adding that Nova Scotia lobsters are also a major import.