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Huawei technicians helped Uganda, Zambia govt spy on political opponents

Employees embedded with cybersecurity forces in Uganda and Zambia intercepted encrypted communications and used cell data to track opponents, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation

Joe Parkinson Nicholas Bariyo & Josh Chin | WSJ 

Photo: Shutterstock

Technologies Co., the world’s largest telecommunications company, dominates African markets, where it has sold security tools that governments use for digital surveillance and censorship.

But employees have provided other services, not disclosed publicly. Technicians from the Chinese powerhouse have, in at least two cases, personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts, according to senior security officials working directly with the employees in these countries.

In Kampala, Uganda, last year, a group of six intelligence officers struggled to contain a threat to the 33-year regime of President Yoweri Museveni, according to Ugandan senior security officials. A pop star turned political sensation, Bobi Wine, had returned from Washington with U.S. backing for his opposition movement, and Uganda’s cyber-surveillance unit had strict orders to intercept his encrypted communications, using the broad powers of a 2010 law that gives the government the ability “to secure its multidimensional interests.”

According to these officials, the team, based on the third floor of the capital’s police headquarters, spent days trying to penetrate Mr. Wine’s and communications using spyware, but failed. Then they asked for help from the staff working in their offices from Huawei, Uganda’s top digital supplier.

“The Huawei technicians worked for two days and helped us puncture through,” said one senior officer at the surveillance unit. The Huawei engineers, identified by name in internal police documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, used the spyware to penetrate Mr. Wine’s chat group, named Firebase crew after his band. Authorities scuppered his plans to organize street rallies and arrested the politician and dozens of his supporters.

The incident in and another in Zambia, as detailed in a Journal investigation, show how Huawei employees have used the company’s technology and other companies’ products to support the domestic of those governments.

Since 2012 the U.S. government has accused Huawei—the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and second-largest manufacturer of smartphones—of being a potential tool for the Chinese government to spy abroad, after decades of alleged corporate espionage by state-backed Chinese actors. Huawei has forcefully denied those charges.

The Journal investigation didn’t turn up evidence of by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa. Nor did it find that Huawei executives in China knew of, directed or approved the activities described. It also didn’t find that there was something particular about the technology in Huawei’s network that made such activities possible.

Details of the operations, however, offer evidence that Huawei employees played a direct role in government efforts to intercept the private communications of opponents.

Huawei has “never been engaged in ‘hacking’ activities,” said a Huawei spokesman in a written statement. “Huawei rejects completely these unfounded and inaccurate allegations against our business operations. Our internal investigation shows clearly that Huawei and its employees have not been engaged in any of the activities alleged. We have neither the contracts, nor the capabilities, to do so.”

The spokesman added: “Huawei’s code of business conduct prohibits any employees from undertaking any activities that would compromise our customers or end users data or privacy or that would breach any laws. Huawei prides itself on its compliance with local regulations and laws in all markets where it operates.”

In Zambia, according to senior security officials there, Huawei technicians helped the government access the phones and Facebook pages of a team of opposition bloggers running a pro-opposition news site, which had repeatedly criticized President Edgar Lungu. The senior security officials identified by name two Huawei experts based in a cyber-surveillance unit in the offices of Zambia’s telecom regulator who pinpointed the bloggers’ locations and were in constant contact with police units deployed to arrest them in the northwestern city of Solwezi.

The ruling Patriotic Front posted on its Facebook page in April that police officers working with “Chinese experts at Huawei have managed to track” and arrest the bloggers. The party’s spokesman confirmed to the Journal that the case was handled by the Cybercrime Crack Squad, the unit at the telecom regulator.

The revelations focus attention on the surveillance systems Huawei sells governments, often branded “safe cities.” The company says it has installed the systems in 700 cities spread across more than 100 countries and regions.

In Zambia, Huawei’s products are part of the country’s Smart Zambia initiative to implement digital technologies across government departments.

Huawei, in the statement, said it had never sold safe city solutions in Zambia and hasn’t conducted business with Zambia’s Cybercrime Crack Squad.

Chinese government officials have played a key role in facilitating deals for Huawei in Africa, attending meetings and escorting African intelligence officials to the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen, according to senior African security officials.

While many of the projects are rudimentary, Huawei has sold advanced video-surveillance and facial-recognition systems in more than two dozen developing countries, according to data gathered by Steven Feldstein, an expert in digital surveillance at Boise State University and a former Africa specialist at the State Department.

Huawei lists foreign firms among its partners in its safe-city products, including U.S. smart-sensor manufacturer and systems integrator Johnson Controls PLC and iOmniscient Pty. Ltd., an Australian producer of AI systems that analyze video, sound and smell. Johnson Controls declined to comment. iOmniscient said it has provided behavioral analytics products through Huawei in the Middle East but not in Africa.

First Published: Fri, August 16 2019. 20:42 IST