Congress and the Pentagon have set their sights on two Chinese telecommunications giants as dangerous potential threats to national security as their wildly popular cell phones start to infiltrate the American market.
U.S. military leaders have listed cyber attacks as a top national threat with the Defense Department, FBI and National Security Agency trying to keep up with the rapidly maturing technological threats facing the government.
The Defense Department sustains more than a 10 million cyber attacks per day. The White House sustained and repelled a serious enough attack Monday that administration officials acknowledged the risk it posed although it didn’t provide details.
Attacks don’t have to infiltrate nuclear missile bunkers or submarine messaging codes to bring a country to its knees. Digital technology penetrates most of American culture. Cell phones lead the way as these tiny computers dictate most Americans’ schedules, communications and even banking.
This dependence on cellular networks has drawn the attention of the U.S. military as Chinese telecommunications firms have grown into global powers. Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd leads the way as it has grown into the world’s largest telecommunications supplier, recently surpassing Ericsson.
What concerns U.S. authorities are the close connections Huawei maintains with the Chinese government and People’s Liberation Army. One report estimates the Chinese government has access to about 80 percent of the world’s communications through their domestic telecommunications corporations.
The House Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation into Huawei and ZTE Corporation, another telecommunications giant, to probe those companies’ Chinese government connections and decide if they can safely operate in the U.S.
Australian politicians have already decided that Huawei poses too severe a threat and has banned the telecommunications corporation from doing business in Australia.
The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee flew to Hong Kong in June to meet with the leadership of Huawei and ZTE. U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., took the roughly 17-hour flight to deliver a message: The U.S. will not allow Huawei and ZTE to serve as espionage arms to the Chinese government inside American borders.
“The whole purpose of the investigation is to determine whether China or other countries had the ability to engage in our networks and control our networks and steal information from our networks by having some of their companies doing business in the United States,” Ruppersberger said.
He takes cyber threats seriously saying the country doesn’t realize just how vulnerable it is to a massive attack.
“Cyber attacks are one of the most serious threats to our country, not only to our domestic business, but also our national security,” he said.
A high level U.S. federal report released in March cited the Chinese military’s access to civilian telecommunications hardware as a major concern. Huawei’s founder is a former PLA soldier. His army background has caused much of the hand wringing over his company’s connections to China’s military.
“This close relationship between some of China’s — and the world’s — largest telecommunications hardware manufacturers creates a potential vector for state sponsored or state directed penetrations of the supply chains for microelectronics supporting U.S. military, civilian government, and high value civilian industry such as defense and telecommunications,” stated a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
The report’s authors described how the penetration of a telecommunications supply line could cause a “catastrophic failure of select systems and networks supporting critical infrastructure for national security of public safety.”
China’s military has made major strides in its cyber capabilities as the U.S. still struggles to figure out how cyber attacks fit into its military’s architecture. Service leaders still question what their responsibilities entail outside protecting their own networks.
The commission found that China’s “capabilities in computer network operations have advanced sufficiently to pose genuine risk to U.S. military operations in the event of a conflict.” Authors of the report expect China’s initial response to a conflict with the U.S. to include a cyber attack against American logistics and intelligence networks.
Huawei’s founder told Ruppersberger their company poses no threat to Americans’ privacy or security. The congressman described his meeting with Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s founder, similar to a deposition in which he tried to collect information for the House investigation into the company. However he did deliver a warning to Zhengfei.
“I said we in the United States are [in favor of] free enterprise but we also have to protect our citizens and we are very concerned about Chinese cyber-attacking our businesses and it has to stop. [The] more active China is in cyber attacking the United States, the more it’s going to hurt your ability to do business in our country,” Ruppersberger said he told Zhengfei.
Officials from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission focused Huawei’s relationship with the Chinese government. They found numerous examples of Huawei working together with China to include training events with military personnel.
“Huawei may also be involved in supporting PLA active-duty units with short term training in networking design and construction, possibly supporting the military region command system with technical experts and “train-the-trainer” program” the commission found.
Huawei works closely with the Chinese military on research and development projects either “directly as a vendor or indirectly as a research collaborator,” which weakens “claims by Huawei’s leadership that it maintains no ties with the Chinese government or the military,” the commission found.
Much like the U.S., the British are closely monitoring how these Chinese telecommunications networks have infiltrated their domestic market. Huawei has tried to assuage British fears by establishing security teams inside British borders near Cheltenham.
The British military has its own doubts. Leadership fears that the British communications networks have already become too dependent on the Chinese telecommunications giants. Huawei equipment runs nearly half of the British communications network, said Ross Anderson, a professor at University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory.
Anderson described how a telecommunications company like Huawei doesn’t necessarily need to install backdoor mechanisms to pose a threat. The company can implant a virus into the regular updates a network requires.
Inside the tens of millions of lines of code that run those updates, a company can hide a targeted attack for espionage purposes, Anderson said.
Huawei officials have approached Anderson to learn about the global communications networks. Anderson has stopped his meetings with Huawei after he got tired of the one-way relationship the company maintained with the Cambridge professor.
“I found them to be an information sponge. [Huawei officials] always want to absorb information but never want to provide information,” Anderson said.
He wrote a report for the European National Security Agency that focused on the importance of global routers and their control over the global communications node. Huawei controls about 20 to 30 percent of those routers, Anderson estimated.
Control of those routers could allow Huawei to shut down much of the world’s internet access and communication network “for a few days”-- paralyzing international marketplaces and militaries.
“[Leadership] has nightmares of China being able to shut down communications in a national security crisis,” Anderson said.