Tech by VICE

Huawei Makes Canada Nervous Too

As early as 2011 and 2012, the Canadian government was weary of Huawei's presence.

by Ben Makuch
Sep 2 2014, 8:01pm

The Huawei headquarters in Shenzen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Two years after US officials slammed the Chinese telecom giant Huawei for its connection to the Chinese People's Liberation Army, the company is looking to expand in the Canadian market, which is perceived as being friendlier than the US.

But two separate Canadian government memoranda from 2011 and 2012 obtained by Motherboard through the Access to Information Act suggest the Canadian federal government had reservations of its own about Huawei and internal talk to "harmonize" its national telecommunications infrastructure with its American allies. 

Related: Canada and China Are Still Waging a Cyber War

The documents feature similar reservations to the aforementioned 2012 report from the US House Intelligence Committee: that Huawei's alleged ties to the PLA—and the hackers that work for it—present a security risk.

Both memos come from the Department of Public Safety, which oversees Canada's spy agency, CSIS. The documents contain heavy redactions, but infer the government's interest surrounding the potential role of having the Chinese company, which the US government labelled a national security liability, involved in its own telecommunications infrastructure.

One heavily redacted draft of a memorandum from June 2012, classified as "TOP SECRET," examines the security of Canada's telecommunications infrastructure with regard to Huawei. 

In the document, Lynda Clairmont, an assistant deputy minister of national security at the time of the memo, writes that her department provided the intel "as per your request." That indicates an interest from the ministerial level in light of media reports about the trustworthiness of Huawei.

"Recent media attention surrounding the participation of companies in the Canadian telecommunications sector such as Huawei," reads the memo with a redaction following, "Have prompted questions about the overall security of Canadian telecommunications and its underlying infrastructures."

The memo cites Australia's decision to block Huawei from tendering  contracts in the country's National Broadband Network as well. 

Foreign governments and companies are increasingly taking steps to exert and gain control over this infrastructure to achieve their national security and economic objectives

Clairmont also catalogues Huawei's presence within Canada after first establishing itself in Canadians markets in 2008. The company went on to provide radio access network equipment to Canadian telecom companies like Bell, Telus, Wind Mobile, and Sasktel, while receiving government funding from the province of Ontario and integrating some of its research into Canadian universities.

Under "Considerations," the top secret draft memo examines the global integration of technologies into computer equipment used in Canada. Though there's no explicit mentioning of the security risks involved with international suppliers, the breakdown of computer hardware is reminiscent of NSA slides detailing internal computer back channels used by the agency to spy on foreign citizens.

That's when heavy redactions in the memo begin. Indeed, Clairmont's "Next Steps" for the unnamed deputy minister were completely removed.

After the above memo was initially sent, it was reported that the Harper government was considering banning Huawei from building Canadian government telecom infrastructure for national security reasons.  

But another memo authored by Clairmont from October 2011, this one classified as "SECRET," sheds more light on reservations Canadian government officials had for Huawei and their advice to the top levels of government formulating policy. 

Prepared as a briefing on the US decision to prohibit Huawei from building the interoperable wireless networks for American emergency responders, Clairmont maps out "possible implications for Canada."

Listed under "Considerations," Clairmont writes that global information infrastructure is "increasingly being perceived, by many countries, as a strategic economic and national security asset. Foreign governments and companies are increasingly taking steps to exert and gain control over this infrastructure to achieve their national security and economic objectives."

Following several redactions, Clairmont indicates that the government of Canada has been looking to reduce or remove "restrictions on foreign investment in the telecommunications sector," with such reforms allowing "greater foreign access to our telecommunications infrastructure and services."

Again, following yet more redactions, Clairmont states that Canada's ability to mitigate the potential dangers a foreign telco could have on Canadian digital infrastructures "is paramount."

Perhaps in the most telling passage in the document, Clairmont infers Canada should fall in line with its American counterparts and its perspective on the safety of emergency responder networks.

"As the US has prohibited Huawei from providing equipment for their first responders network and Canada is seeking to harmonize with the US for public safety use of telecommunications spectrum; it will be critical that Canada ensures its telecommunications infrastructure and networks are secure," she writes, followed by complete redactions of the remaining text in the document.

One of the heavily redacted documents I received from the government

In light of the memos, I asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade whether or not the government is suspicious of Huawei's presence in Canada and if they took these reservations into diplomatic relations with the Chinese.

"The Government of Canada supports a prosperous and competitive telecommunications sector in Canada. A thriving telecommunications industry must be a safe and secure one," said department spokesperson Claude Rochon. 

"Huawei is a foreign investor in Canada, with several research and development facilities across the country. Canada welcomes foreign direct investment that benefits our country," she said.  

The insights into Canada's internal perspective on Huawei, an entity with a long list of detractors who suspect it of providing Chinese hackers with backdoor spying capabilities on its users, come after DFAIT Minister John Baird held a tête-à-tête with his Beijing counterpart over allegations the Chinese had been hacking Canadian scientific research.

There's no denying the covert espionage between Canada and China likely continues behind the veneer of diplomatic meetings. And it's worth noting that many of the redactions made to the documents Motherboard obtained was withheld pursuant to sections "International Affairs," protecting government "buildings, structure or systems," and because the information constituted "advice or recommendations," all cited within the Access to Information Act.  

In other words, it's clear that Canadian federal eyes have been fixed on Huawei before, current support for foreign investment notwithstanding.