Huawei not operating Safe City equipment, as concerns mount over Chinese tech giant

Who is scared of Huawei? The Chinese tech giant is testing its 5G mobile network in Malta, but is the island being cautious in the face of growing international security concerns?

Digital economy parliamentary secretary Silvio Schembri (left). In addition to its role in the Safe City project, Huawei has also signed two memoranda of understanding with the Maltese government including one about the provision of 5G mobile connectivity
Digital economy parliamentary secretary Silvio Schembri (left). In addition to its role in the Safe City project, Huawei has also signed two memoranda of understanding with the Maltese government including one about the provision of 5G mobile connectivity

Safe City Malta director Joe Cuschieri has dismissed security concerns related to Chinese tech giant Huawei, insisting nothing will be left to chance as far as security is concerned.  

Safe City Malta is a government company which has been set up to manage an advanced surveillance project across the island. The project will be implemented through a public-private partnership between Safe City Malta and Huawei, which is being eyed with suspicion by several governments over spying fears.

Cuschieri said that Safe City Malta’s engineers would be taking the necessary technical and operational measures to ensure an “appropriate level of data protection and information security”. The company, he said, would be ensuring confidentiality, data integrity and availability according to “approved access policies”.

“In other words, a zero trust security principle applied to all aspects of the operation, and not just with regard to a particular underlying technology provider,” Cuschieri told MaltaToday.

He added that Huawei would only be providing hardware solutions. “Huawei will not be operating any Safe City equipment, and will not even have direct access for technical support purposes.”

“Data will be stored in Malta and will stay in Malta, governed by a security and data retention policy.”

Cuschieri, who is also the CEO of the Malta Financial Services Authority, said “technical measures using third-party technology will also be in place to continuously audit network traffic flow”.

Fears about Huawei include the possibility that the company could develop ‘backdoors’, or weak links in their infrastructure, that would allow hackers or intelligence services to listen in on communications in other countries.

Cuschieri also noted that international concerns were mainly about Huawei’s 5G equipment and not the type of equipment it will be providing for the Safe City project.

While concerns about Huawei are not new, a 2012 US House Intelligence committee report concluded it was a company that should be viewed with suspicion and there seems to have been an escalation on this matter in recent months.

In December, Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer and the daughter of its founder was arrested in Canada on charges of breaching US sanctions against Iran.

Towards the end of last year, both Australia and New Zealand said they would be banning Huawei from supplying equipment to support their 5G mobile network infrastructures. The UK and Germany are also reported to be viewing the company with increased caution.

Huawei has always maintained that it is a normal communications company and has dismissed concerns as unfounded.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Huawei chairman Liang Hua warned that the company could shift away from Western countries if it continues to face restrictions. “We would transfer the technology partnership to countries where we are welcomed and where we can have a collaboration.”

Malta part of European-level discussions

In addition to its role in the Safe City project, Huawei has also signed two memoranda of understanding with the Maltese government including one about the provision of 5G mobile connectivity.

The technology is expected to be roughly 100 times faster than the current 4G system and will make it possible for the network to carry and process huge amounts of data. This new capability will be essential to support future artificial intelligence applications and connected computing devices.  

But while Malta’s relationship with Huawei promises to boost the country’s tech industry, many have pointed out that the company’s reputation was one to be wary of, especially considering the caution being exercised by other western states.  

Speaking to Euronews this week, Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola said, “When multiple member states with heavy security infrastructure start to express concerns, we need to take them into consideration. Whenever there is a sense of state interference, proven or not…you cannot ignore it.”

Asked whether Malta had discussed security concerns with other governments, a government spokesperson said Malta was “actively participating in discussions on the matter within the structures of the EU”.

“Discussions on cyber issues are classified by the Council, and therefore details of the ongoing discussions cannot be divulged,” the spokesperson said.

They added that so far no official position had been taken by the European Commission, the Council, and the European Parliament.
Sources in Brussels have told MaltaToday that as things stand, three Member States – France, Slovenia and Poland – have declared that they are considering placing restrictions on Huawei’s operations.

Greece, Italy, Finland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Portugal and Austria have said that they do not intend to place any restrictions on the company, with the remainder of the EU’s member states still assessing the situation.

Meanwhile, the Romanian EU presidency has placed cybersecurity, and the examination of any possible threat at the top of its agenda.    
 
Struggle for tech industry dominance

The current attitudes towards Huawei must be viewed within the context of long-standing anxiety on the part of the US government and industry about Beijing’s Made in China 2025 policy that seeks to make China dominant in global high-tech manufacturing.

Huawei recently surpassed Apple to become the second-largest smartphone seller in the world. The company intends to spend $20 billion dollars on research and development alone this year.

In many cases, concerns about Huawei aren’t necessarily about what it has already done, but instead, about what it might do.

The fact that China’s National Intelligence Law, enacted in 2017, obliges Chinese “organisations and citizens” to “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work” has further fuelled the West’s unease.

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