The United States is pressuring Canada to block telecommunications companies from using equipment provided by Chinese company Huawei when building our 5G cellular network for smartphones.
The U.S. logic is along the lines of “We don’t have actual evidence that China is using Huawei’s products to spy on us, but we suspect that they have in the past and will in the future.” In court, that wouldn’t be sufficient to be allowed as evidence, much less get a conviction.
But this isn’t a criminal court. This is about national security and corporate spying. And a cyber war is being waged that’s similar to the Cold War.
The treasures we’re fighting over?
Rare commodities in a world that’s rapidly being depleted of natural resources, wealth, and political favours and control.
Russia has been suspected of Internet-based attacks in a variety of nations and has become increasingly bold using this strategy.
After taking the Ukrainian power grid down in December 2015, Russian hackers, from the state-sponsored group known as Dragonfly, seized control of critical computers in the U.S. power grid in the spring of 2016.
Groups working for Chinese intelligence have apparently hacked everything from natural resource companies to the Pentagon. It’s believed they’ve directed their activities toward either hacking companies that control access to critical natural resources or high-technology equipment, civilian or military.
The Chinese government maintains firm control over their companies, government-owned or private, and these companies are required to co-operate with any national intelligence activities. Huawei and several other Chinese-based suppliers have been caught embedding backdoor access in various digital equipment. It’s not known whether these security lapses were intentional or leftover access for testing that was forgotten and not removed before releasing them to production.
Either it was intentional or it was sloppy. It was definitely not secure.
In truth, the U.S. has been doing all of these things, too. Many U.S.-based hardware and software suppliers have National Security Agency-directed backdoors installed. This had been heavily documented by Edward Snowden.
This NSA program, PRISM, has alleged been used to intercept all manner of communications. There are serious concerns about how much this is used domestically, without warrants and without judicial oversight.
In 2010, a malicious worm (it sends copies of itself out to infect other machines networked with the infected machine) called the Stuxnet attacked and destroyed a number of centrifuge machines being used by the Iranians in their nuclear weapons program. The worm was carefully crafted to target these machines and the suspicion is that it was produced by a joint operation of American and Israeli intelligence. It set the Iranian nuclear weapons program back due to the loss of the centrifuges.
This isn’t about ethics or moral outrage. Depending upon where you live, you might agree with some of these cybernetic attacks and feel outraged at others. However, we don’t need to determine who’s right or wrong – this is simply about being pragmatic.
China, though a trade partner, is also a competitor that seeks every advantage when dealing with us. The Chinese have engaged in corporate espionage, stealing technology where they can.
It doesn’t need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Huawei will install backdoors for Chinese intelligence. This isn’t a criminal court trial. This is national security and suspicion is all that’s needed in the murky world of spies.
If Canada is serious about standing as a sovereign entity, it would make sense to support our tech companies.
Blackberry, a Canadian-based smartphone maker, has traditionally had the best security of any phone maker. Nortel was a major player in network infrastructure before its financial collapse in the early 2000s. Maybe Canada should take a page out of the playbook of so many other nations and start supporting and encouraging our companies. Companies like these are our only real way to ensure our security and independence from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence operations.
It’s high time we started putting the interests and security of Canadian citizens, businesses and government first, and stop worrying about offending a foreign power’s sensibilities.
Eamonn Brosnan is a research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.