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Chinese Tech Giant Huawei Linked to Surveillance Operations and Intelligence Gathering: Report

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: December 15, 2021
Chinese and Russian hackers pose a major security threat to the U.S. This photo taken on August 4, 2020 shows Prince, a member of the hacking group Red Hacker Alliance who refused to give his real name, using his computer at their office in Dongguan, China's southern Guangdong province.
Chinese and Russian hackers pose a major security threat to the U.S. This photo taken on August 4, 2020 shows Prince, a member of the hacking group Red Hacker Alliance who refused to give his real name, using his computer at their office in Dongguan, China's southern Guangdong province. (Image: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

An analysis by the Washington Post finds that Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei may have played a larger role in surveillance and software programs than previously acknowledged by both the company and the government. 

The review of more than 100 Huawei PowerPoint presentations, many marked “confidential,” suggests that the company had a broader role in enabling more efficient tracking of China’s populace.

The presentations, posted to a public website and marked as marketing tools by the company, were removed late last year. In the slides, Huawei showcased how its software technologies can help government authorities identify individuals by voice, monitor political individuals of interest, manage ideological re-education and labor schedules for inmates, and help retailers track shoppers’ purchasing habits via facial recognition.

​​“Huawei’s 4D vector facial recognition identifies customers’ portraits as they walk by, such as gender, clothing, occupation, etc., and accurately delivers specific product introductions to different customers,” one of the presentations said.

Intelligence-gathering for Beijing

After reporters reached out to Huawei representatives to seek comment on the information presented on the slides, the company responded by saying: “Huawei has no knowledge of the projects mentioned in the Washington Post report,” a statement released on Dec. 14 read. “Like all other major service providers, Huawei provides cloud platform services that comply with common industry standards.”

Huawei has long been accused of violating users’ privacy by tracking and sharing this data with the Chinese government. A number of Western governments have even blocked Huawei from participating in their new 5G networks out of concern that the company may be assisting Beijing with intelligence-gathering and biometric tracking. 

The company has previously addressed queries about its possible connections to the Chinese government and asserted that it only sells general-purpose networking gear. “Privacy protection is our top priority,” the company has said. 

In October, Huawei and other major Chinese tech companies such as Tencent and Baidu made public pledges that they would not abuse facial recognition and other surveillance technologies.

US companies on high alert

Last year, tech companies Microsoft and Zoom removed software functions that tracked employee attentiveness and productivity after receiving public backlash. Amazon also found itself in hot water after revealing it used artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled cameras, wristbands and other devices to monitor its employees. 

The Biden administration also recently blacklisted Hong-Kong based AI firm SenseTime Group Limited, which the Treasury Department claims “operated or owned companies that operated surveillance technology used to target members of the Uyghur Muslim minority group using facial recognition.” 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long been accused of rampant human rights abuses against prisoners of conscience and the mass incarceration of millions of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s remote western regions. 

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In response to Washington’s crackdown on SenseTime Group, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said: “On International Human Rights Day, the US Treasury is using its tools to expose and hold accountable perpetrators of serious human rights abuse,” Adeyemo said in a statement released on Dec. 10. 

“Our actions today, particularly those in partnership with the United Kingdom and Canada, send a message that democracies around the world will act against those who abuse the power of the state to inflict suffering and repression.”

Cracking down on economic espionage and intelligence theft

Recently, the U.S. government has begun a tougher crackdown on the theft of American intelligence and trade secrets at the hands of Chinese spies. In November, a federal jury convicted 41-year-old Yanjun Xu from China for “attempting economic espionage and theft of trade secrets.”

The case against Xu reveals how the CCP has been using espionage to steal American industrial secrets to boost its modernization efforts. Xu also became the first Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited to the United States to stand trial.

Beijing has also implemented a sweeping regulatory crackdown on the country’s tech companies. The crackdown, part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, has seen China’s largest tech firms fined billions of dollars for breaching regulation laws. 

The country’s largest e-commerce company Alibaba was fined a record-breaking $2.8 billion in April after Chinese regulators docked the company for acting like a monopoly and preventing other merchants from selling products across rival e-commerce platforms.

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