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Huawei allegedly helps African governments spy on dissidents – WSJ

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Huawei has allegedly helped African governments spy on political opponents, including surveillance and distributing spyware, leading to arrests and other crackdowns, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In its report (behind paywall) the newspaper highlighted Uganda and Zambia where the authorities have got direct help from Huawei employees to crack down opposition. These measures include surveillance cameras, phone tapping, and cracking encrypted communications with spyware. In the most extreme case, the report says, the pop singer turned politician Bobi Wine’s supposedly secret meeting was busted by the Ugandan police, and his driver was killed. (More details are included in the video clip included at the bottom of this page.)

In Zambia, Huawei employees were reported to have helped the government crack the password protected phones and private Facebook pages of opposition bloggers critical of the president.  The government was then able to track them down and make arrests. Algeria’s ruling party confirmed to the newspaper that they work with Huawei to monitor the opposition though refused to discuss details.

In response, Huawei rejects the allegations:

“We completely reject the Wall Street Journal’s unfounded and inaccurate allegations against Huawei’s business operations in Algeria, Uganda, and Zambia,” said a Huawei spokesperson in a statement sent to Telecoms.com. “Huawei’s code of business conduct prohibits any employees from undertaking any activities that would compromise the data or privacy of our customers or end users, or that would breach any laws.  Huawei prides itself on its compliance with local laws and regulations in all markets where it operates and we will defend our reputation robustly against such baseless allegations.”

Huawei has exported the surveillance system already common in China’s cities to many African countries. The images captured on camera are then processed by Huawei’s facial recognition and AI technologies to identify suspects, sometimes even before any crimes have been committed. Activists also accuse the governments of abusing the technology. The activist Dorothy Mukasa told WSJ that “we’ve seen the (Ugandan) government target opposition more than the criminals.”

Two Ugandan security officers also told WSJ on anonymous basis that Huawei employees directly help them break the encryption of the applications the opponents use for communication, including WhatsApp, by planting spyware on their phones. Huawei denied the allegation in their statement to WSJ that “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.”

One thing worth noting is that the WSJ does not establish evidence that the alleged activities in Africa were carried out with approval, or even awareness, from Huawei headquarters.

This is not the first time Huawei has found itself in the centre of controversies in Africa. As was reported earlier, the IT and communication system at the African Union headquarters, supplied and installed by Huawei, was sending data every night from Addis Ababa to Shanghai for over four years before it was uncovered by accident. Huawei’s founder later claimed that the data leaking “had nothing to do with Huawei”, though it was not clear whether he was denying that Huawei was aware of it or claiming Huawei was not playing an active role in it.

Here is the video included in the WSJ report:

Update 16:30 BST:

Huawei contacted Telecoms.com to draw our attention to “A Legal Demand Letter to The Wall Street Journal” published on the company’s official website. In the letter Huawei repeated its position that the accusations in the WSJ report are false, and “Huawei takes these false and defamatory statements about its business seriously, especially when published by a news source as well regarded as the Journal. The publication of these false statements has and will continue to damage Huawei’s reputation and business interests across the globe. Huawei reserves all rights and claims in this regard and will defend its conduct and reputation. We would be happy to discuss with you related to this matter.”

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