Search for Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei on Sina Weibo and one of the things you are likely to find is jokes about how hard their engineers have to work.
One gag has it that the three most important questions in Huawei’s interview process are: Can you handle overtime? Do you like overtime? Are you used to working overtime?
Because of the lengthy hours spent at the office, another quip about Huawei’s employees is that their spouses are the least faithful in China.
But if reports in the New York Times and Der Spiegel last weekend are true, employees at the world’s third largest mobile phone maker may end up having to work even harder.
Based on documents provided by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the two newspapers allege that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) hacked into Huawei’s corporate servers in 2010 and began siphoning off emails between company executives.
The aims of the operation – known as Shotgiant – were twofold: firstly to establish whether Huawei had close ties to the Chinese government and military; and secondly to eavesdrop on Huawei’s customers in places like Iran, Pakistan and Cuba, which have avoided buying US telecoms products.
“Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products,” the New York Times sourced the documents as saying. “We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products,” it added, citing the goal as access to “networks of interest”.
Neither the NSA or the White House has denied the reports.
“We do not give the intelligence that we collect to US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line. Many countries cannot say the same,” was the White House’s only comment on the case thus far.
So how did Huawei – which has been shut out of the US equipment market in recent years on national security concerns – react to this news?
It didn’t seem particularly shocked. “If true,” a company statement read, “we strongly condemn such actions.”
Huawei then decided to score a few points.
“The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us,” the vice president for external affairs Will Plummer told the New York Times.
Plummer also tried to turn the news to Huawei’s advantage. “If such espionage has been truly conducted,” he added, “then it is known that the company is independent and has no unusual ties to any government, and that knowledge should be relayed publicly to put an end to an era of mis-and-disinformation.”
The Chinese media was unwilling to show such commendable restraint, mind you.
“Excuses such as anti-terrorism measures and national security ring hollow,” wrote the Global Times. “We have every reason to believe that in every contract that Huawei lost because of the intervention of the US government, the information collected by the NSA played a vital role. Huawei’s competitors who benefit from the contracts were also the beneficiaries of the NSA’s surveillance.”
A second commentary in the newspaper’s Chinese language version drove home the same point, declaring: “America’s hypocrisy has been exposed. The NSA’s actions against Huawei were …. intended to shoot down this rapidly rising Chinese technology giant.”
China’s foreign ministry was also furious, demanding that Washington “gives a clear explanation and stops such acts”.
All of which can’t have helped US leader Barack Obama as he tried to get Xi Jinping to help in the diplomatic isolation of Russia over its annexation of Crimea.
Instead the Chinese president is said to have used time at their meeting this Monday to grill Obama about the NSA’s snooping on Huawei.
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