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Worldcrunch

Back Doors, Remote Access, Vulnerable Code - Are Chinese Routers Spying On Us?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Huawei staff performing routine maintenance

Chinese routers from Huawei and ZTE are "a threat" for the United States, or even the world, according to a U.S. Congressional intelligence committee report made public on October 8. The committee suspects that these machines, which transmit Internet communications, could be working for the Chinese government.

With this report, the American Congress has launched its own attack against the two Chinese telecom firms, already singled out by the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as, in France, by Senator Jean-Marie Bockel.

After a yearlong investigation, the congressional committee concluded that two the telecom giants are a real danger to American security. Their recommendation is simple: Huawei and ZTE must not be allowed to sign contracts or make acquisitions in the United States.

The House Intelligence Committee's conclusions are stark. "Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems."

The Beijing link

The congressmen launched their investigation because of the unclear relations between the Chinese government and the two companies. They believe that Beijing could use the two companies' products to conduct economic and military warfare, or even cyber-attacks. With Huawei and ZTE, according to the committee, China would have "the means, opportunity and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes."

The American authorities have suspected for a long time that chips, routers, and other digital equipment from China could be equipped with "back doors," hidden access that would allow an ill-intentioned remote user to connect, giving the Chinese government the chance to access sensitive information as it passes through the machines.

Questioned by the committee, the heads of the two Chinese companies responded that they are businessmen and have nothing to do with politics. "The integrity and independence of our organization and its business practices are respected and considered worthy of confidence and the integrity in more than 150 different countries," Huawei's vice president William Plummer said in its defense. ZTE is remaining silent.

Needless to say, the companies’ answers concerning their relations with the Chinese government did not satisfy the committee.

Defense risks

This is not the first time that the two Chinese manufacturers have been under fire. In August, Felix Lindner and Gregor Kopf, computer security specialists at Recurity Labs, criticized the vulnerability of Huawei's machines. "You get what you pay for, sorry. These machines have serious security issues." 

According to Felix Lindner, Huawei routers are actually dangerous. "In my eyes, the greatest danger is that you don't know how vulnerable it is, you're left in the dark." He blames the company for not providing any instructions to their consumers. He also says that the machines use "1990s-style code" which is "too vulnerable to intrusions."

Even earlier, the alarm was sounded by Jean-Marie Bockel, a centrist French senator and former secretary of state for defense. On July 19, the senator presented a report on French cyber-defense. It proposed "banning at-risk routers and other core network equipment." On his short list of brands to ban: Huawei and ZTE.

According to the Bockel report, "There is nothing to prevent a country that produces network routers from inserting devices for surveillance or interception, or even a system that completely interrupts all communication at any time." Bock also asked for a ban on the sale or use of Chinese equipment to companies that manage Internet communications.

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