Huawei's presence in Saskatchewan risky, says security expert

The former head of the Asia-Pacific Bureau for CSIS says the presence of Chinese telecom giant Huawei's equipment in Saskatchewan's wireless networks could pose security risks.

SaskTel confident in Huawei relationship despite security concerns from experts

Chinese telecom Huawei is active in Saskatchewan, with connections to SaskTel and the province's two universities. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

The former head of the Asia-Pacific Bureau for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) says the presence of Chinese telecom giant Huawei's equipment in Saskatchewan's wireless networks could pose security risks.

Michel Juneau-Katsuya said modern technology provides the potential to, "intercept some very sensitive communications." 

"Today, we are confronted with the ability, with miniaturization, to place spy-technology that can be activated remotely without being aware of it," said Michel Juneau-Katsuya.

Huawei has denied allegations that it conducts espionage on behalf of China. The company has been operating for years in Canada and in Saskatchewan, where it has relationships with SaskTel the University of Regina and some students at the University of Saskatchewan.

Huawei has deals with Bell and Telus and has partnerships with Canadian universities. The company says it is investing more than half a billion dollars in researching 5G, the next generation of cellular networks in Canada. It also has a deal to sponsor Hockey Night in Canada through 2020.

SaskTel spokesperson Michelle Englot responded to questions about the Crown corporation's relationship with the Chinese tech company via email.

"SaskTel can confirm that we have an existing business relationship with Huawei. SaskTel has been using Huawei equipment for the radio access network components in its 4G/LTE wireless network," Englot said.

"We do also use Huawei radio access network equipment in our Fusion network and Huawei also provides the customer premise equipment (box) that is located in a customer's home."

Englot said Huawei equipment is not used in SaskTel's core network.  

"SaskTel takes network security very seriously and we work with other national carriers that use Huawei equipment to ensure security concerns are addressed. SaskTel is confident that it manages security appropriately through internal use of security best practices and externally with all its network suppliers, which includes Huawei and other global suppliers."

Englot said that for security reasons, SaskTel would not disclose its procedures.

Wall defended deal in 2012

Premier Brad Wall spoke about the SaskTel deal with Huawei after a September 2012 trip to China.

"This agreement we've signed with Huawei ... is something about which we're very comfortable," he said in October 2012.

The deal was to test high-speed wireless internet and phone service in rural Saskatchewan.

Premier Brad Wall looks on as the presidents of SaskTel and Huawei Canada signed a deal in Beijing in 2012. (CNW/Huawei)

Wall said the new antennas did not present a security risk.

"Not routers, not the kinds of things that would access information," he said.

"We're going to move forward with it," he said. "Rural coverage is simply too important."

SaskTel president Ron Styles said "(Huawei) were the low bidder, they've been a great partner for us over time and have complied with all our requirements."

Sask. universities connected to Huawei

In 2016, the University of Regina entered a partnership with SaskTel and Huawei which "turned the University into a giant laboratory that is providing a real world test site of next generation wireless technology." according to a university news release at the time.

The school used technology made by Huawei to boost wireless service at spots on campus including the Kinesiology building and the Riddell Centre.

"The technology allows for much greater wireless capacity on campus, including where signals have been known to fade or disappear. That will no longer be the case," the school said in the release.

It was the first time this type of technology was deployed in Canada.

Huawei said it is not involved in research projects at the University of Saskatchewan, but five engineering students at the university have participated in Huawei's Seeds for the Future exchange program over the past three years. The students participating in the program have made a trip to China and visited the Huawei headquarters.

"There was no remuneration involved and no research component to the visit. There were no implicit or explicit commitments by the university to anything beyond the student visit," the University of Saskatchewan said in an emailed statement to CBC.

Juneau-Katsuya said that student exchange could allow the company to spy indirectly, identifying good targets among researchers or getting to know more information.

Huawei CFO arrested in Vancouver, bans in Australia and New Zealand

On Dec. 1, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver, putting an international spotlight on the Chinese tech firm. On Tuesday, Meng was released on $10-million bail.

Meng, the daughter of Huawei's multi-billionaire founder, was detained in Vancouver on fraud charges at the request of U.S. authorities. She was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on her way from Hong Kong to Mexico.

Meng Wanzhou left B.C. Supreme Court in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday. (CBC)

On Tuesday, the Canadian government confirmed former diplomat Canadian Michael Kovrig was detained in China. 

In a recent letter, U.S.Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep Chinese tech out of a planned new high-speed network, warning that allowing Huawei into Canada's 5G would put intelligence-sharing between Canada and the U.S. at risk.

Rubio plans to reintroduce a bill to ban Huawei from the U.S.

Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei from being a part of future 5G mobile networks.

Former CSIS director expresses concern

Huawei Canada told CBC's As It Happens in an email that it has been operating in Canada since 2008 without problems and that its 700 employees "will continue to do whatever is required by Canadian operators and stakeholders to ensure Canada remains a global leader in telecommunications now, and in the future."

Ward Elcock, a former CSIS director and deputy minister of national defence, told As It Happens he has concerns about Huawei's presence in Canada because, "it is essentially under the control of the Chinese government."

"It is hard for me to believe that a company such as Huawei would not do the bidding of the Chinese government and would not build traps, back doors into its technology on behalf of the Chinese government," he said.

Elcock said the next issue for Canada and Huawei is the implementation of 5G technology.

"Letting them into the 5G infrastructure, it seems to me, would be a bridge too far," he said.

In 2012, the Harper government blocked Huawei from bidding on federal government contracts. Stephen Harper recently told Fox News that Canada should ban Huawei from the 5G network.

About the Author

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for 12 years. He hosts the CBC podcast On the Ledge. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

with files from Radio-Canada's Miriane Demers-Lemay, and CBC News

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