How the NSA Deals with a Threat to Its Backbone Hegemony

I have talked before about the importance of US’ dominant role in global telecom infrastructure in our hegemonic position.

US hegemony rests on a lot of things: the dollar exchange, our superlative military, our ideological lip service to democracy and human rights.

But for the moment, it also rests on the globalized communication system in which we have a huge competitive advantage. That is, one reason we are the world’s hegemon is because the rest of the world communicates through us — literally, in terms of telecommunications infrastructure, linguistically, in English, and in terms of telecommunications governance.

Which is why these stories (NYT, Spiegel’s short version, to be followed by a longer one Monday) about NSA’s targeting of Huawei are so interesting. Der Spiegel lays out the threat Huawei poses to US hegemony.

“We currently have good access and so much data that we don’t know what to do with it,” states one internal document. As justification for targeting the company, an NSA document claims that “many of our targets communicate over Huawei produced products, we want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products.” The agency also states concern that “Huawei’s widespread infrastructure will provide the PRC (People’s Republic of China) with SIGINT capabilities.” SIGINT is agency jargon for signals intelligence. The documents do not state whether the agency found information indicating that to be the case.

The operation was conducted with the involvement of the White House intelligence coordinator and the FBI. One document states that the threat posed by Huawei is “unique”.

The agency also stated in a document that “the intelligence community structures are not suited for handling issues that combine economic, counterintelligence, military influence and telecommunications infrastructure from one entity.”

Fears of Chinese Influence on the Net

The agency notes that understanding how the firm operates will pay dividends in the future. In the past, the network infrastructure business has been dominated by Western firms, but the Chinese are working to make American and Western firms “less relevant”. That Chinese push is beginning to open up technology standards that were long determined by US companies, and China is controlling an increasing amount of the flow of information on the net. [my emphasis]

And the NSA document the NYT included makes this threat clear.

There is also concern that Huawei’s widespread infrastructure will provide the PRC with SIGINT capabilities and enable them to perform denial of service type attacks.

Now, for what it’s worth, the NYT story feels like a limited hangout — an attempt to pre-empt what Spiegel will say on Monday, and also include a bunch of details on NSA spying on legitimate Chinese targets so the chattering class can talk about how Snowden is a tool of Chinese and Russian spies. (Note, the NYT story relies on interviews with a “half dozen” current and former officials for much of the information on legitimate Chinese targets here, a point noted by approximately none of the people complaining.)

But the articles make it clear that 3 years after they started this targeted program, SHOTGIANT, and at least a year after they gained access to the emails of Huawei’s CEO and Chair, NSA still had no evidence that Huawei is just a tool of the People’s Liberation Army, as the US government had been claiming before and since. Perhaps they’ve found evidence in the interim, but they hadn’t as recently as 2010.

Nevertheless the NSA still managed to steal Huawei’s source code. Not just so it could more easily spy on people who exclusively use Huawei’s networks. But also, it seems clear, in an attempt to prevent Huawei from winning even more business away from Cisco.

I suspect we’ll learn far more on Monday. But for now, we know that even the White House got involved in an operation targeting a company that threatens our hegemony on telecom backbones.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Recall, about 15-18 months ago, a 60 minutes piece on how Huwaei was trying to get its hardware into the US cell system? And how, when a local provider somewhere out West was going Huwaei, they had a visit from a serious-faced man from an unnamed government agency reminding them of their patriotic duty.

    To Buy American.

  2. orionATL says:

    with the commerce and trade stories that keep popping up in the snowden revelations, we may be getting closer to why obama and his admin have repeatedly refused to level with us about why the extraordinary extensive and invasive nsa spying is really needed. it clearly is not a matter of national security in the “protect from terrorism” sense.

    i really cannot believe that an industry, u.s. telecommunications, that is dependent on government kniving by means of spying, in other words that is dependent on being covertly SUBSDIZED by the u.s. gov, can thrive once that subsidy is revealed. i would be delighted to see an unfair trade argument made based on this subsidy.

  3. Badtux says:

    So who is Huawei? Huawei’s networking equipment division is the former network equipment division of 3-Com Corporation, whose acquisition by Huawei was approved by the Bush II Department of Commerce. I have a Huawei backbone switch somewhere whose firmware still proudly announces it is a 3-Com when I hook up to its serial port.

    Yet another thing to thank Dubya for.

  4. steve says:

    There is a DEFCON slideshow from 2012 floating around the tubes which shows that the firmware on Huwei’s enterprise-class routers was either lifted from circa-2009 Cisco equipment or rewritten (badly) from scratch and then shipped with no security testing. There is a write-up here:

    and the slides or the presentation itself on youtube are easily googleable. My point being that NSA was almost certainly not worried that they would need to approach the company in order to compromise the hardware.

    Maybe we talk people out of using Huwei because we know it’s already wide open to exploit, regardless whether that’s by design or incompetence.

Comments are closed.