NSA's reported Huawei hack gives glimpse of agency's role in 'cyber Cold War'

The latest report based on leaks by Edward Snowden has it that the NSA hacked into the servers of a Chinese router company that had itself been accused by the US of potentially aiding government espionage.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
3 min read

Huawei's E5786 LTE Wi-Fi mobile hot spot, unveiled at Mobile World Congress earlier this year.

A new report based on the trove of secret NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden gives a glimpse of the agency's role in the cyber-intrigues taking place between the US and China. Files show the NSA hacked into Chinese router-maker Huawei's servers in hopes of gaining info on government plans and of exploiting the company's products to spy on other foreign rivals.

The New York Times reports that the NSA "pried its way into the servers in Huawei's sealed headquarters in Shenzhen, China's industrial heart" and "obtained information about the workings of the giant routers and complex digital switches that Huawei boasts connect a third of the world's population, and monitored communications of the company's top executives."

The goals of this "Shotgiant" operation, the paper says, included unearthing any ties between Huawei and the People's Liberation Army, and also gaining information on how to exploit Huawei's products in order to spy on foreign customers such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, and Cuba.

The news is ironic, according to a senior Huawei executive in the US who spoke with the Times.

"The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us," Huawei exec William Plummer told the paper.

Some American officials think Huawei is a front for the People's Liberation Army, and in 2012, the US House Intelligence Committee released a report accusing Chinese telecommunications gear makers of being threats to US security and discouraging US companies from buying their equipment. (The Times ran a story yesterday about how US companies are currently seeing their bottom lines affected in some countries over suspicions about ties to the NSA.)

Huawei, for its part, says it's the victim, in the US, of economically motivated protectionism. But the US counters that it's the Chinese who hack into systems for their companies' economic gain and that US intelligence efforts are focused solely on protecting national security. "We do not give intelligence we collect to US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line. Many countries cannot say the same," a White House spokeswoman told the Times.

The Times reports that the Snowden documents it reviewed do not reveal whether Huawei has links to the PLA.

In their book "The New Digital Age," published last year (before the Snowden leaks), Google's Eric Schmidt and co-author Jared Cohen called China "the most sophisticated and prolific" hacker of foreign companies, adding that "the disparity between American and Chinese firms and their tactics will put both the government and the companies of the United States at a distinct disadvantage," because "the United States will not take the same path of digital corporate espionage, as its laws are much stricter (and better enforced) and because illicit competition violates the American sense of fair play."

The Times article goes on to discuss the growth of hacking by China, citing anonymous current and former intelligence officials, and saying, among other things, that:

"For some of its most audacious attacks, China relies on hackers at state-funded universities and privately owned Chinese technology companies, apparently as much for their skills as for the plausible deniability it offers the state if it gets caught. The NSA is tracking more than half a dozen such groups suspected of operating at the behest of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, China's civilian spy agency."

After reports last year that China was behind hacks of the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, China's Defense Ministry told the Post: "The Chinese military has never supported any hack attacks. Cyberattacks have transnational and anonymous characteristics. It is unprofessional and groundless to accuse the Chinese military of launching cyberattacks without any conclusive evidence."

You can read the Times story about "Shotgiant" and the NSA's hacking of Huawei here.

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