The US is investigating China’s telecommunications equipment maker Huawei over concerns that the cell towers it makes may capture sensitive information from nearby military bases and be passed on to China, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The Huawei equipment could collect data on military drills and the readiness status of bases and personnel, said one of the people, requesting anonymity because the investigation is confidential.
The Commerce Department opened the previously unreported investigation shortly after Joe Biden took office in early 2021, the sources said. The move followed new rules under a May 2019 executive order that gave Commerce investigative authority.
The agency subpoenaed Huawei in April 2021 to ask about the company’s policy on sharing data with foreign parties its equipment can capture from cell phones, including messages and location data.
The Commerce Department said it could not “confirm or deny ongoing investigations,” adding “protecting US persons’ safety and security against malign information collection is vital to protecting our economy and national security.”
Huawei did not respond to a request for comment. The company has strongly denied US government allegations it could spy on customers and poses a national security threat.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to the specific allegations but in an emailed statement said:
“The US government abuses the concept of national security and state power to go all out to suppress Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies without providing any solid proof that they constitute a security threat to the US and other countries.”
If the Commerce Department determines Huawei poses a national security threat, it could go beyond existing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restrictions.
With the broad powers created during the Trump administration, the agency could ban all US transactions with Huawei and compel US telecoms carriers that use Huawei equipment to remove it.
“If you can stick a receiver on a (cellphone) tower, you can collect signals and that means you can get intelligence. No intelligence agency would pass an opportunity like that,” said Jim Lewis, a technology and cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.
Cell towers equipped with Huawei gear that are close to sensitive military and intelligence sites have become a particular concern for US authorities, according to the two sources and an FCC commissioner.
Brendan Carr, one of the FCC’s five commissioners, said that cellphone towers around Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base – one of three that oversee missile fields in the US – use Huawei technology.
In an interview this week, he told Reuters there was a risk data from smartphones obtained by Huawei could reveal troop movements near the sites.
“There’s a very real concern that some of that technology could be used as an early warning system if there happened to be, God forbid, an ICBM missile strike.”
In Wyoming, then CEO of rural carrier Union Wireless, John Woody, said in a 2018 interview with Reuters that the company’s coverage area included missile silos near the F.E. Warren Air Force Base and that its equipment included Huawei switches, routers and cell sites.
Last month, Eric Woody, John’s son and currently acting CEO, said “virtually all the Huawei gear Union purchased remains in our network.” He declined to say whether the towers close to the sensitive military sites contain Huawei equipment.
- Reuters, with editing by Neal McGrath