Vancouver (The Star ) – The federal government is facing harsher criticism for Canada’s continued involvement with China’s Huawei Technologies after the chief financial officer of the controversial telecom was arrested in Vancouver on Saturday.
Canada’s Justice Department says the United States is seeking Wanzhou Meng’s extradition but is not providing further details about the case because of a court-ordered publication ban.
Meng, who is also Huawei’s deputy chairwoman on the board, is currently in custody, according to Vancouver Supreme Court records. The court will proceed with her bail hearing Friday morning.
The Chinese telecommunications giant is currently in partnership with leading Canadian universities across the country as well as companies such as Telus, with whom it is developing interconnected 5G networks in Canada.
Matthew Dubé, New Democrat MP and critic for public safety and emergency preparedness, told StarMetro the opposition has heard concerns from Canada’s allies.
“The big challenge that we face (is) that there’s a lot of questions that remain unanswered … The ‘just trust us’ line that we’ve been getting … is not necessarily helpful,” Dubé said.
Both the United States and Australia have banned the company from participating in the construction of 5G networks because of security concerns, and Washington has been increasing pressure on Canada, Britain and New Zealand to follow suit.
Canada is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance with the United States, Britain, Australia New Zealand.
Last month, New Zealand became the third “Five Eyes” member to ban domestic telecommunications operators from using Huawei’s equipment on national security grounds.
Dubé said even the opposition is currently in the dark about Ottawa’s response to mounting criticism from allies, experts and the general public regarding its ongoing silence.
“We’ve heard assurances — but blind assurances — from the minister of public safety and the prime minister. And I think that, ultimately, it’s incumbent on them to provide the proper assurances — whether that has to be done privately for reasons of national security — to parliamentarians and hopefully to the public as well,” Dubé said.
“This is critical infrastructure, and I think we need to, obviously, adjust ourselves accordingly.”
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Dubé noted that just this week, the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spy agency David Vigneault told members of the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto that he considers espionage and foreign influence to represent the greatest threat to Canadian national interests.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday his office got “a few days’ notice that this was in the works,” referring to Meng’s arrest, but he emphasized the actions of law-enforcement officials are independent from politics.
“We are a country of an independent judiciary, and the appropriate authorities took the decisions in this case without any political involvement or interference.”
Reuters has reported the arrest is related to a potential violation of U.S. trade sanctions, but StarMetro has not independently verified this claim.
“What this indicates is that the U.S. government thinks it has a particularly strong case against this individual who is involved in the movement of goods, the alleged sale of goods,” said Christopher Parsons, a cybersecurity expert with Citizen Lab in the Munk School at the University of Toronto.
The development of interconnected 5G technology is very costly, so “there are economic reasons that Huawei has been attractive” to Canadian companies and universities, according to Parsons.
“Equally concerning is Huawei very helpfully helps facilitate research amongst Canadian universities. But as part of that, amongst certain universities, it’s meant that Huawei subsequently obtains the patents that are realized,” he told StarMetro.
This might mean in years to come, China could become a powerful arbiter of which countries can obtain access to networks and technologies.
Last month, the Weekend Australian published an article citing secret intelligence reports showing Huawei officials were pressured at some point in the past two years to provide password and network details to infiltrate a foreign system.
At that time, the report prompted experts in Canada to reiterate concerns that working with Huawei is a grave “mistake.”
In 2017, Huawei announced a $3-million three-year commitment with the University of British Columbia to support research in advanced communications. In September, the company sealed a new five-year agreement to extend its partnership with the University of Toronto — after already providing more than $3.5 million in research funding to the university.
Both UBC and the University of Toronto supplied statements to StarMetro suggesting that unless the federal government issues an explicit ban on business dealings with Huawei, the research partnerships the schools have established with the company would stand.
“UBC is not aware of any restrictions regarding working with Huawei and will continue with its partnership,” wrote Gail Murphy, UBC’s vice-president of research and innovation. “We have no comment on the recent reports of legal proceedings against a Huawei employee.”
“The U of T works with individuals or organizations that are legally operating in Canada,” wrote Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “We will respect any direction that we receive from the Government of Canada with respect to national security.”
Both universities said they focus on partnerships with companies that will allow their graduates and faculty to make a positive contribution to the world of innovation and comply with all legal restrictions when it comes to foreign companies.
China’s foreign ministry in Beijing has demanded the immediate release of Meng and for clarification on the reason behind her detention.
“The Chinese side demands the Canadian side to earnestly ensure Chinese citizens’ security, humanitarian treatment and legal rights and interests. Detaining the person involved with no explicit reason certainly harms her human rights,” spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press conference.
Meanwhile, a federal review was released Thursday detailing the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security’s assessment of “the current cyber threat environment facing Canada and Canadians.”
“Nation-state adversaries have the greatest capability and intent to conduct cyber threat activity against Canadian public institutions,” the report says. “State-sponsored cyber threat actors vary in sophistication and it is likely that some advanced actors can operate undetected.”
Charles Burton, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, told StarMetro in November that concerns around the surveillance potential of hardware and infrastructure provided to Canada by Huawei were particularly pressing because the company is subsidized by the Chinese government.
“According to Chinese law, citizens of the People’s Republic of China who are working in sensitive areas are obligated to respond to the requests from government to provide information that will be of use to the Chinese state,” Burton explained, noting the company is referred to as a “national champion” firm.
“The subsidies to Huawei are in fact paid back by Huawei providing an all-of-government approach to the installation of this equipment, where it will allow the state to gather extensive amounts of data, which they can gain information that is of use to China’s modernization and military purposes.”
North American telecommunications are already heavily integrated, Burton said, which means if some aspect of the Canadian system were using Huawei equipment, it could be used as a “back door” to get to U.S. technologies, including the military, through covert means.
Huawei did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In November, StarMetro reached out to Huawei five times for comment on privacy and security allegations but received no response. On Nov. 5, a tech publication reported that Huawei “categorically” denied it has ever provided, or been asked to provide, customer information for any government or organization.
The Thursday report from the federal cybersecurity agency appears to identify concerns that closely match Burton’s analysis of the current situation.
“Cyber threat activity against Canadian public institutions occurs most often when Canada is a global research leader or involved in sensitive international or bilateral issues,” the report says. “We assess that nation-states around the world are continuing to invest in their cyber capabilities with the intent of advancing their national security and economic objective.”
A further government review is underway to assess the “cyber threats and risks” inherent to “the implementation of 5G infrastructure in Canada,” according to a statement on the website of the federal Canadian Centre for Cyber Security.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness said it could not comment on specific companies in the context of the review.
Dubé said he hopes the current 5G review “takes place as quickly as possible.”
With files from The Canadian Press and Melanie Green.
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer
Joanna Chiu is assistant managing editor of StarMetro Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu