Huawei executives took advantage of this week's Mobile World Conference in Barcelona - one of the global telecom industry's biggest trade events - to mock US allegations that Chinese telecom giant represents a possible security threat for the US's western allies, when he correctly pointed out that US law requires the same type of security cooperation for which Huawei is allegedly complicit.
In remarks that touched a nerve for the US, Huawei Chairman Guo Ping offered what Bloomberg described as "his boldest defense yet" against allegations that Huawei is complicit in espionage during a presentation in Barcelona, where he also brought up the NSA domestic mass-surveillance programs exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden. Many of these programs - like the infamous PRISM program - involved the mandatory cooperation of the US's biggest tech and telecoms firms in the collection of digital communications. Guo pointed out that US federal law requires companies to hand over data to the government, even when that data is stored on foreign servers.
Guo's macabre sense of humor elicited a few laughs from his audience.
"Prism, prism on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?" Ping asked, drawing laughter and scattered applause. "It is a very important question and if you don’t answer that, you can go and ask Edward Snowden."
In an editorial published by the FT on Wednesday, Guo hit upon what he said was the real source of the US's anxieties about Huawei: The Chinese telecoms giant threatens the US's "digital dominance" and has stoked fears of falling behind in the race for becoming the dominant power in 5G technology. Another consideration: As Snowden revealed, the US intelligence agencies are hell-bent on "collecting it all", and obedient domestic companies have been more than happy to oblige. But the growing dominance of Huawei, which operates in 170 countries and isn't beholden to Washington, makes that task much more difficult.
Here's more from the FT:
Clearly, the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks, the harder it becomes for the NSA to “collect it all”. Huawei, in other words, hampers US efforts to spy on whomever it wants. This is the first reason for the campaign against us. The second reason has to do with 5G. This latest generation of mobile technology will provide data connections for everything from smart factories to electric power grids.
Huawei has invested heavily in 5G research for the past 10 years, putting us roughly a year ahead of our competitors. That makes us attractive to countries that are preparing to upgrade to 5G in the next few months. If the US can keep Huawei out of the world’s 5G networks by portraying us as a security threat, it can retain its ability to spy on whomever it wants. America also directly benefits if it can quash a company that curtails its digital dominance. Hobbling a leader in 5G technology would erode the economic and social benefits that would otherwise accrue to the countries that roll it out early. Meanwhile, a range of US laws, including most recently the Cloud Act, empowers the US government to compel telecom companies to assist America’s programme of global surveillance, as long as the order is framed as an investigation involving counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism.
And to Washington's chagrin, other telecoms executives appeared to defend Huawei in their remarks, insisting that global carriers needed "a degree of choice" when selecting suppliers.
Vodafone Chief Executive Officer Nick Read, speaking on stage Monday, said carriers need “a degree of choice” when buying equipment. In an interview, Orange SA’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer and Deputy CEO Mari-Noelle Jego-Laveissiere said that any ban on the Chinese company’s equipment would be “damaging” for the region.
It isn’t clear how much of an impact the U.S. delegation is having. Vodafone’s Read said Monday he had no meeting planned with U.S. officials on Huawei and would rather talk to national regulators if needed. Deutsche Telekom Board Member Claudia Nemat said she hadn’t been approached by the U.S. for meetings.
Rebutting Guo's claims, one State Department official quoted by Bloomberg insisted that, even if international telecoms firms don't trust the US, there are plenty of options aside from Huawei that don't involve the same security risks. But, it's worth pointing out, they also don't offer the same cutting-edge 5G technology or low price.