An Inside Look At The Tech Giant Huawei

Jun 10, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 1:13 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And let's consider the case against Huawei. The U.S. is waging a campaign against the Chinese tech giant, a global campaign. It wants to stop companies from working with Huawei. It wants allies to keep Huawei out of the next generation of digital networks because of fears that China's government could use Huawei to hack those networks. Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition has been asking how real the risk is. He's back in our studio. Welcome.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

M. KELLY: Hey. So what made you want to take a closer look at Huawei?

INSKEEP: It is a symbol of the wider conflict between the U.S. and China. We've been looking at people with a foot in both worlds, both countries as they pull apart. And what drives a lot of the disputes - the trade war and many other things - is the fact that they're two different systems. In this case, a Chinese company wants to do business in the U.S. and elsewhere even though it's operating under that very different system.

M. KELLY: OK. So you got to see a few of Huawei's different sites on your recent reporting trip to China. Take me there. What equipment do they make that is so sensitive?

INSKEEP: We got a look on a factory floor at one of the most basic things they make.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

INSKEEP: We were at a Huawei assembly line in southern China - big concrete floor, it's really clean, huge, mostly automated.

There goes a little Huawei robot carrying one of these boxes to its destination while playing music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: So it doesn't surprise the few people who are moving around. Now, the assembly line is making these plastic boxes and wrapping them for shipment. They are base stations which send and receive data from your smartphone. Huawei also makes antennas to receive these signals and millions of smartphones, lots of stuff, reports huge profits. And it has headquarters in southern China that really flaunt that wealth.

M. KELLY: And where exactly in southern China?

INSKEEP: In Shenzhen, which is China's version of Silicon Valley. It's a city that didn't even exist a few decades ago, and now it's vast. And we went to this Huawei campus of sprawling buildings.

The scale of this - the marble, the stone - feels a little like the Palace of Versailles if the Palace of Versailles had, I don't know, a 30-foot-high video screen.

And this giant screen was showing colorful scenes of life in cities. It was at the entrance to this display hall, almost like a Huawei museum, showing what the company wants to do in cities.

JOE KELLY: This is 1 of 3 exhibition halls we have on campus.

INSKEEP: You're hearing Joe Kelly (ph), former tech journalist who now works for the company. He says networks run with Huawei equipment can coordinate traffic in a city or allow trash cans to tell the city when they're full or let police get real-time data on crimes.

J. KELLY: All of the video feeds can be analyzed by the central control unit. And it simply allows the organization to control things faster.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at a map here of the world. This is places where you've already sold some of these.

J. KELLY: These are places where we have implemented either smart or safe city solutions.

INSKEEP: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco. Needless to say...

J. KELLY: Bolivia, Argentina, Netherlands, London.

M. KELLY: Everywhere, so all kinds of networks and all kinds of sensitive data traversing those networks.

INSKEEP: Which explains why the U.S. is alleging Huawei can't be trusted to touch that data because China's government might ask Huawei for intelligence information. President Trump said it this way in May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Huawei is something that's very dangerous. You look at what they've done from a security standpoint, from a military standpoint. It's very dangerous. So...

INSKEEP: But the president went right on to say he might back off Huawei as part of some larger trade deal.

M. KELLY: At the very same event, same press conference?

INSKEEP: The same sentence as he went on a little bit, yeah.

M. KELLY: Which makes it sound like the president thinks Huawei is not such a security threat. I mean, what exactly is the danger as you've been able to look at it?

INSKEEP: Well, the best publicly available information on this is not in the United States or China. It's actually in the U.K., which looks closely at Huawei because it's a global company.

M. KELLY: Sure.

INSKEEP: They do business there. So we made a Skype call to Britain.

Mr. Woodward.

ALAN WOODWARD: Good morning.

INSKEEP: That's Alan Woodward, who's a professor who has consulted with U.K. internet security officials. I asked him what somebody abusing Huawei gear might be able to do to me.

WOODWARD: It's not really what they could do to you. I think one needs to look at it in a slightly different way.

INSKEEP: Woodward is not that worried about Huawei equipment being used to spy on individuals because if somebody wanted to hack your data, there are probably easier ways to do that, unfortunately.

M. KELLY: Sure.

INSKEEP: But suppose some secret backdoor let people crack into Huawei gear. Hackers might disrupt the network, make it crash. So to avoid that risk, Britain set up a special evaluation center to examine Huawei products.

WOODWARD: And they strip it all back. And they look at the software and the hardware. And they make sure that there are no security flaws in it, no backdoors, nothing like that.

M. KELLY: And what'd they find? Did they find a backdoor?

INSKEEP: They have not, so far as we know. But a report from the British evaluators did find baffling security flaws in a particular kind of software that tells Huawei gear what to do.

WOODWARD: Everybody already knew there was a security problem, so why that was being used, nobody could understand.

INSKEEP: In some other cases, Huawei sent one kind of software to be tested in the U.K. and then sold a different version of it to British companies, which suggests that it's not really being tested at all, makes it more vulnerable to hackers. Huawei did promise British security officials to improve quality control, Woodward says.

WOODWARD: What was reported by the National Centre for Cyber Security (ph) was that they had seen no tangible progress.

M. KELLY: What does Huawei say to all of this?

INSKEEP: Well, we heard an answer when we were at the corporate headquarters in China. And we talked through an interpreter with Catherine Chen. She's on Huawei's board. She's been a company employee for decades. And we discussed a while we promised to spend $2 billion upgrading security.

CATHERINE CHEN: (Through interpreter) We have to make further improvements and up our game in terms of improving the security engineering capability and security technologies.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention that whatever Huawei may do, however it may invest, the real Western fear is from China's government. Could it lean on Huawei to manipulate the Internet somehow? And in response to that, Catherine Chen quoted Ren Zhengfei, who is the company founder.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) Mr. Ren has said publicly that in the past, there has never been any request made by any government, including Chinese government, to implant backdoors. And he even goes further to say that if, in the future, there was such kind of request, he would rather shut down the company than to comply with those requests.

M. KELLY: But is it entirely up to Huawei? As you know from reporting there, China's government is intertwined with the private sector and commerce in all kinds of ways.

INSKEEP: And that's the main reason the United States says it does not want Huawei selling equipment for the next generation Internet network known as 5G. But Huawei is still thinking globally, which we could see on another of their several campuses while we were in southern China. This campus is in the city of Dongguan. And the campus is so vast that you have to ride from one place to another on a train.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

INSKEEP: That is the sound of the red antique-style commuter train pulling into the station where we boarded, which was in Paris.

M. KELLY: In Paris. So we've moved inward from Versailles right into central Paris, OK.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) This campus in China is designed to look like historic sites in a series of European cities, including Paris. And these cities were visible outside the train.

Heidelberg Castle, OK, the turret there.

People are crossing a river on an arched stone bridge lined with street lamps. There was a cobblestone street leading toward a tower in Bologna, Italy.

Paris is behind us. Who knows what's in front of us?

This company has worldwide ambitions, whether the United States wants to restrain it or not.

M. KELLY: Steve Inskeep of our sister program, Morning Edition, sharing some of his reporting from China. Thank you.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

M. KELLY: He has been reporting on people with a foot in two worlds, and there's more tomorrow morning. What are we going to hear?

INSKEEP: Descendants of Chinese immigrants who've built a famous American railroad - the Transcontinental Railroad.

M. KELLY: All right. We'll be listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.