The technological giant Huawei is facing fresh allegations in the Czech Republic over the potential cyber security threat due to the company’s supposed close links with the Chinese government.
The Czech public broadcaster has published new evidence in which it cites two former Huawei managers claiming they were required to collect personal information about their clients. These details were then inserted in a database managed by the company’s headquarters in China and shared with the Chinese officials in Prague.
The news comes amid the growing pressure from the United States, which has instructed its governmental agencies not to buy equipment from Huawei, and which has prevented the company from partaking in the development of the country’s 5G network. The U.S. officials have expressed concerns over possible data breaches that could be misused against the national interests.
The Government Has Ordered Audit of State Institutions
The two former Czech Huawei employees whose identity remains protected worked for the company for several years during which they were tasked, among other things, to gather intelligence of personal nature on people they used to do business with. This included information about how many children they had or what their hobbies were.
Huawei has previously vehemently denied allegations of cooperation with the Chinese government but the Czech National Cyber and Security Information Agency issued in December 2018 a security alert in which it identified Huawei as a national security threat. The report cited a Chinese law, which requires private companies located in China to help the national authorities gather intelligence.
Shortly after the report publication, the Czech government ordered a thorough audit of all state institutions and called for the private sector to follow the suit in order to assess the extent to which they were exposed to potential cyber threats. The audit is due to be completed at the end of September.
Huawei’s Market Share and Risks to Critical Infrastructure
The exposure to the potential risk is not insignificant. While the investments of Huawei in Central Europe lag behind those in Western Europe, its mobile phone market penetration in the Czech Republic is over 20%. Furthermore, the company’s technology underpins a portion of the country’s critical infrastructure, including 19 systems owned by the Czech interior ministry.
On top of that, Huawei supplies the Czech president’s office and his staff with all the necessary communication services. But unlike the Czech government, President Zeman has been a staunch advocate of closer political and business relations with China.
So much so that he was quick to denounce the validity of the report published by the country’s secret service, accusing the Czech intelligence agencies of playing dirty tricks. He subsequently warned against the potential economic damage that this might have caused for the Czech Republic.
The Regional Dimension
Nevertheless, the issue also has a regional as well as European angle. In January 2019, Poland arrested Huawei’s former executive suspected of spying but despite these suspicions, the government has pushed for closer ties with China, hoping to generate more investment in the economy.
In Hungary, in the meantime, Huawei has been invited to participate in the development of the country’s ICT sector through, among other things, the know-how transfers and study trips.
Should the Czech government’s audit conclude in September that the country’s security has been compromised, it will be put in a difficult position–not least because following the Netherlands, France and Germany’s defiant stance against the American decision to ban Huawei, it will struggle to find allies to support it.
And for as long as Washington is more focused on fighting trade wars with Beijing than on supporting its partners in Europe, small and vulnerable states such as the Czech Republic will be caught between a rock and a hard place.