Four U.S. senators have registered concern about the proposal of a start-up company, Amerilink Telecom Corp., to upgrade Sprint Nextel’s national network to 4G data-rate capacity using Chinese-provided equipment from Huawei Shenzen Ltd., a company with longstanding ties to the Chinese military. The point made by the senators – Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, Jon Kyl, and Sue Myrick – is that China could install a surveillance or sabotage capability in a very large segment of the U.S. wireless infrastructure. The scope of the Sprint Nextel 4G upgrade reportedly encompasses about 35,000 transmission towers throughout the 50 states.
Huawei has been trying to crack the U.S. market for years but has always been blocked by the security concerns of American officials, backed by comprehensive cyber-security reports from intelligence agencies and the Pentagon. Huawei hoped to contract directly with Sprint this past summer, but when a group of senators shot that attempt down, a senior Sprint executive left the company to join Amerilink and began planning a new strategy to bring Huawei into the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. The strategy has included developing “insider” connections by recruiting Dick Gephardt and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn to Amerilink’s board, along with former Navy secretary and Defense Department official Gordon England.
Although vigilant senators deflected the Huawei-Sprint bid as recently as August, there’s a reason for disquiet in October. In a move that received little attention outside the tech-industry press, Huawei finally managed this month to contract with a U.S. wireless provider, T-Mobile, to supply handsets to customers. On Monday, Forbes tech writer Jeffrey Carr wondered why this contract was allowed to go through, considering that T-Mobile is a government contractor and supplies handsets and wireless service to federal agencies.
That’s a good question. India, Britain, and Australia have all zeroed in on Huawei (along with Chinese tech firm ZTE) as a source of potential security risks. India’s resistance to penetration has equaled that of the U.S. – and may soon exceed it. America seems to be quietly lowering its guard with Huawei: the announcement of the T-Mobile contract last week came on the heels of an October 11 press release from Huawei Symantec on its plan to sell data-storage platforms and gateway packages to U.S. customers. For a company that has consistently been excluded from the U.S. due to security concerns, that’s a lot of market-entry announcements in one week.
The Stuxnet worm has reminded us of the stealthy and devious methods by which security vulnerabilities can be introduced into the IT systems that control major infrastructure operations. We won’t see the next “Stuxnet” coming, or the one after that; the events of 2010 clarify for us that we can’t rely solely on technical vigilance to protect our critical infrastructure. We also need a basis for trusting suppliers the old-fashioned way. China and its tech companies haven’t met that test.