White House reportedly finds no evidence of spying by Huawei

An alleged White House review of security risks posed by Chinese telecom gear maker Huawei found no evidence that the company spied on behalf of the Chinese government, according to a Reuters report.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
3 min read
Workers take a lunch break at Huawei's Shenzhen, China, campus. Jay Greene/CNET

An 18-month review by the White House found "no clear evidence" that Chinese telecommunications gear maker Huawei had performed any spying on behalf of the Chinese government, according to a Reuters report.

The news service, citing two unnamed sources, said the White House looked into reports of suspicious activity, with the help of intelligence agencies and other government departments, and queried nearly 1,000 telecom equipment buyers. One of the sources said that "certain parts of government" very much wanted evidence of espionage. In the end, though, they came up with nothing definitive.

"We would have found it if it were there," the source told Reuters.

However, White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden denies that such an investigation took place.

"The White House has not conducted any classified inquiry that resulted in clearing any telecom equipment supplier as reported in Reuters," Hayden said in an e-mail, according to an article published Wednesday evening in The Hill. "In October of last year, Huawei was excluded from taking part in the building of America's interoperable, wireless emergency network for first responders due to U.S. Government national security concerns."

If an investigation actually did take place, it would take some of the sting out of a report issued last week by the House Intelligence Committee that accused Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese maker of telecommunications gear, of posing a national security threat because of the potential they could spy on behalf of the Chinese government. That report criticized both companies for being vague in their replies to lawmakers' questions. But rather than offering evidence, the committee cited concerns about the Chinese government persuading the companies to help with its snooping as reason to discourage American companies from doing business with Huawei and ZTE.

"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 report said.

Huawei seized on the newer Reuters report, saying it confirmed what the company has been saying all along.

"Huawei is not familiar with the review, but we are not surprised to hear that the White House has concluded there is no evidence of any Huawei involvement with any espionage or other non-commercial activities," Bill Plummer, Huawei's vice president for external affairs, said in a statement. "These are, of course, the facts and they will remain such in the future -- Huawei is a $32 billion independent multinational that would not jeopardize its success or the integrity of its customers' networks for any government or third party. Ever."

A spokeswoman for the House Intelligence Committee didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.

This summer, CNET visited Huawei's Chinese headquarters in Shenzhen and a research facility in Shanghai to report on the espionage concerns. Many of those focus on its founder and chairman, Ren Zhengfei, who once served as a civil engineer for the People's Liberation Army. Ren, who rarely grants interviews, remains private to the point of suspicion to the company's critics. The company declined to make him available to CNET at the time.

The alleged White House review apparently wasn't all good news for Huawei, though. It found that Huawei's gear was still risky for companies to use because of vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. Reuters said the White House didn't know if those vulnerabilities were placed there deliberately.

Those vulnerabilities do buttress one piece of the House Intelligence Committee report: that the potential exists for Huawei to spy on behalf of the Chinese government, even if it hasn't already.

Update at 6:25 a.m. PT October 18: The White House denial of any such investigation has been added.