Huawei Employees Helped African Governments Spy On Opponents, Bypass Encryption

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According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, Huawei has been selling surveillance tools to the African country of Uganda, and its employees have been helping the government officials spy on their political opponents. 

The Huawei employees allegedly helped the Ugandan government spy agencies bypass encrypted chats and spy on the whereabouts of the government officials’ opponents via the cellular network. The U.S. government has warned for some time that Huawei’s technology could be used to spy on its employees and networks.

The WSJ investigation didn’t find whether or not the Chinese government was aware of the Huawei employees’ actions. However, the report did mention that members of the Ugandan spies went to training in China. The Ugandan intelligence officials had previously received training on how to use spying tools made by the Israeli firm NSO Group that can supposedly penetrate encrypted chats. 

However, when the officials attempted to use those tools to break the private WhatsApp and Skype conversations of Bobi Wine, a rapper-turned-activist, they failed. The report mentions that the Israeli didn’t provide the Ugandan spies nearly as good of training as the Chinese did.

The NSO Group strongly disputed the allegations that it has been helping the Uganda government spy on activists in a statement to CNBC

"The WSJ article is wrong. And we told them that very clearly when they asked us. We don't work with Huawei at all. We don't do business with Uganda at all. And only NSO sells Pegasus — no one else does."

However, the NSO Group has been caught before selling spyware to governments that target activists. As recently as this May, Amnesty International argued in front of the Israeli government that NSO Group’s license to sell surveillance software to other countries be rejected.

Similarly, Huawei has also strongly denied the allegations that it has been helping African governments spy on activists in a statement to CNBC:

“After a thorough and detailed internal investigation on the points raised by the WSJ's reporting team, Huawei rejects completely these unfounded and inaccurate allegations against our business operations in Algeria, Uganda, and Zambia. Our internal investigation shows clearly that Huawei and its employees have not been engaged in any of the activities alleged. We have neither the contracts nor the capabilities, to do so."

According to an earlier investigation by the French paper Le Monde, China has been spying on African country leaders for at least the past five years (starting in 2012) through hardware equipment the Chinese government has “gifted” the African leaders.

Coincidentally, the U.S. government has also accused Huawei of aiding the Chinese government to spy on others through its own hardware since 2012. The U.S. government has intensified its attacks against Huawei and other Chinese companies last year, and it has even warned other countries about using Huawei’s hardware.

According to the WSJ, the Chinese government has been instrumental in facilitating deals between Huawei and African country governments, attending meetings and escorting African intelligence officials to Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzen. 

After entering the African telecom equipment market in 1998, Huawei now dominates, connecting hundreds of millions of Africans via its wireless networks. In recent years, the company has started focusing more on development of digital surveillance systems. 

Huawei has denied any allegations that its employees have been illegally spying on political activists:

“Huawei’s code of business conduct prohibits any employees from undertaking any activities that would compromise our customers or end users data or privacy or that would breach any laws. Huawei prides itself on its compliance with local regulations and laws in all markets where it operates.”

The emphasis here, though, seems to be complying with the local laws, which in some cases can give the government almost unfettered power. One example is the 2010 Ugandan law that gives the government the ability “to secure its multidimensional interests.” Spying on just about anyone could very well fit within that definition, and even if Huawei would be unwilling to do it, it might have to to respect the local authorities’ “legal” requests.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • shep shep
    This is so funny on many levels..It reads like no body except China spies on other countries!
  • coolitic
    shep shep said:
    This is so funny on many levels..It reads like no body except China spies on other countries!
    Except they also mentioned Israel, and didn't at all try to claim that other countries didn't engage in spying. Nice disingenuous response though.

    EDIT: Also quite interesting that your account is only a day old...
  • bit_user
    For better and for worse, one thing that keeps a lot of US companies out of African markets is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It basically says that US companies, employees, or those working on their behalf cannot bribe foreign government officials.

    One might suppose that companies like Huawei gained entry to these markets through bribery, and now they're staying entrenched through more "intangible" means. Of course, if there's strong evidence of China using Huawei equipment to spy on the governments in power, it could blow up in their faces.