Study tenuously links Huawei to the Chinese state

A new study used a bunch of CVs to draw the conclusion that many Huawei employees have ties to the Chinese state security services.

The study was conducted by Christopher Balding, Associate Professor at Fulbright University Vietnam, but with support from hawkish foreign policy think tank Henry Jackson Society. It seems to set out to undermine Huawei’s repeated claims of innocence when it comes to collaborating with the Chinese state, as it’s headlined ‘Huawei Technologies’ Links to Chinese State Security Services’.

“Using a unique dataset of CVs that leaked from unsecure Chinese recruitment databases and websites and emerged online in 2018, I analyze the relationship between Huawei and the Chinese state security services,” wrote Balding in his introduction. “In the first of what will be a series of papers, I find that key mid-level technical personnel employed by Huawei have strong backgrounds in work closely associated with intelligence gathering and military activities.”

The core evidence revolves around just three CVs, which the author concedes are a limited source but insists are just a sample of the material he uncovered. One CV reveals a Huawei software engineer also holds a position at the National University of Defense and Technology (NUDT), which apparently means he’s officially employed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The second CV reveals a person who used to work at a state-owned organisation before joining Huawei as a Ministry of State Security (MSS) representative. Balding notes that the MSS is the main Chinese spy agency and that the CV indicates the person was involved with building lawful interception capability into Huawei equipment.

The third CV covers someone who once worked at China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC), before eventually joining Huawei. Balding reckons that ‘placed him in contact with some of the most sensitive aspects of all PLA operations and technologies.’ The report also notes that the CV talks of expertise in Cisco and Nortel switches and that such equipment was extensively hacked by actors linked to the Chinese state at the time he worked at CASTC.

“This paper has sought to answer whether there is evidence of Huawei acting in concert with the Chinese state, military, and or intelligence gathering services,” concludes the report. “After examining a unique dataset of employee provided work activity at Huawei, it is clear that there is an undeniable relationship between Huawei and the Chinese state, military, and intelligence gathering services.

“While data limitations prevent us from saying whether Huawei follows official commands, acts in concert with the state, or seeks to preempt greater control by acting in advance, there is significant direct evidence of Huawei personnel acting at the direction of Chinese state intelligence with multiple overlapping relationship links through the Chinese state. This should concern governments worried about Chinese intelligence gathering.”

Huawei, you’ll be amazed to hear, doesn’t agree with these conclusions. Here’s its initial statement: “We have not been able to verify any of these so-called ‘Huawei Employee CVs’ Professor Christopher Balding is citing following our preliminary examination. As such, we cannot confirm the veracity of all of the information published online.

“Huawei maintains strict policies for hiring candidates with military or government backgrounds. During the hiring process, these candidates are required to provide documentation proving they have ended their relationships with the military or the government.

“Cyber security and privacy protection have been and will always be our top priorities. Huawei conducts background checks and provides pre-job training to this effect for employees who will access customer networks and data. Huawei requires all such employee operations be authorized and monitored by the customers. This institutional requirement has enabled Huawei’s products and services to serve our global customers well over the past 30 years.

“Huawei understands that cyber security concerns are paramount in the digital world. We welcome professional and fact-based reporting on investigations into Huawei’s transparency. We hope that any further research papers will contain less conjecture when drawing their conclusions, and avoid so many speculative statements about what Professor Balding ‘believes’, ‘infers’, and ‘cannot rule out’.

The company then issued this follow-up statement once it had given the study a further look. “The report fails to identify any clear evidence that Huawei works on military projects. It is based on just three CVs and in each case admits its attempts to link the company to military activity is based on inference and speculation – not hard facts.”

A few third parties have also questioned the rigour of the study, of which this Twitter thread is a good example.

The author, as you would expect, has taken to Twitter to defend his work.

Our first impression was that this whole thing fells like a bit of a reach, drawing dotted lines between Huawei and the Chinese state on the basis of a few CVs. Having said that Huawei does insist that none of its employees have ties to the state and at least one of these CVs seems to contradict that. This study is one of a steady drip of leaks and reports alleging Huawei to have closer ties to the Chinese state than it admits, but conclusive evidence remains elusive.

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