Foreign telecom equipment may pose a threat to U.S. consumers and national security

Last month, Reuters reported that the Biden Administration has begun investigating Chinese telecom giant Huawei over concerns that US cell towers equipped with foreign hardware could potentially be used to capture sensitive consumer and military information, such as messages and geolocation data, and transmit that information back to China. The previously unreported probe dates back to April 2021 and demands that Huawei provide feedback on its data sharing policy with foreign parties.

The revelation that foreign-sourced equipment could be used to ease drop on U.S. communications and gather intelligence is nothing new or surprising. Authorities have known for years that foreign-manufactured equipment poses a threat to U.S. national security interests. However, the Commerce Department’s investigation into Huawei raises important questions about U.S. infrastructure vulnerabilities, particularly regarding telecom. 

Although the U.S. has begun cracking down on the use of foreign equipment by imposing restrictions on companies like Huawei and ZTE, which the U.S. believes have the ear of the Chinese government, industry insiders note that a significant portion of the country continues to use equipment manufactured by Huawei. Using this equipment presents a problem because much of it, including numerous cell towers, continues to operate close to U.S. military installations such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Some towers are also located near some of the nation’s underground missile silos that house nuclear-equipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). 

At least in theory, these towers could easily be equipped with receivers designed to pick up signals and send that information overseas. A recent FBI investigation on the matter, on which CNN first reported, determined that the presence of “Chinese-made Huawei equipment atop cell towers near US Military bases” was particularly alarming and posed a unique threat to “Defense Department Communications.” Findings such as these have prompted U.S. officials to implement new laws forbidding companies from using equipment manufactured by Huawei. 

In 2019 the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to bar U.S. companies from using Universal Service Fund (USF) subsidies to purchase equipment from Huawei. The FCC justified this ban on the grounds that there was a considerable risk that “backdoors” in America’s communication networks could enable foreign adversaries to participate in espionage and “steal Americans’ data.” In addition, the FCC adopted an accompanying Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that required carriers to “rip-and-replace” Huawei equipment that is already part of U.S. networks. However, that provision will not take effect until mid-2023, leaving U.S. infrastructure vulnerable to nefarious actors.

Unsurprisingly, Huawei has denied allegations that it spies on U.S. consumers or collects information of significance to national security. However, this hasn’t stopped U.S. officials from considering further action against Huawei. For example, beyond existing restrictions placed on the company by the FCC, the U.S. could direct the Commerce Department to prohibit all U.S. transactions with Huawei, putting an end to the company’s ability to do business in the country. The agency could further begin fining U.S. telecom companies that fail to remove Huawei equipment from their networks in a timely manner. 

When U.S. policymakers focus on building out the next generation of wireless technology and closing the digital divide, they should also prioritize information security. Consumers should not have to worry that foreign adversaries are collecting intelligence on American soil. 

While how adversaries might use consumer data is unclear, there is little to reason to trust that the Chinese government has good intentions. For example, data transmitted on foreign cell towers could be used to track dissidents and censor messages to steal intellectual property and state secrets. 

The Commerce Department is right to look critical at foreign technology companies like Huawei and ensure that American infrastructure is safe from interference. Requesting detailed records that include business transactions is a good start and will help ensure foreign companies play by the rules. American consumers will sleep better knowing that network infrastructure is safe from prying eyes. 

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