The National Security Agency (NSA) hasn't been spying on just American citizens of world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The NSA has also apparently been spying on independent Chinese companies like Huawei.
This report could not have possibly come at a worse time diplomatically for the United States, as Obama was set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday to discuss ending the cyber attacks and spying via the Internet between the two countries. During the meeting, Obama defending the NSA's actions, stating that the agency looked into Huawei's servers due to national security concerns, but did not steal any trade secrets.
Obama's statement echoed the explanation given earlier by a White House spokeswoman. Needless to say, China was not impressed with this argument, given the severity of the case.
Newly released NSA documents from Edward Snowden indicate that the U.S. government hacked into Huawei's servers to see if the telecommunications company had been spying on other countries for the Chinese government. The NSA's mission was not only to determine if Huawei had these kinds of connections, but also to infiltrate the company's devices so that the NSA could spy on users of Huawei devices.
"Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products," the NSA document read. "We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products [to] gain access to networks of interest."
The 2010 document mentions Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya and Cuba as specific targets for surveillance via Huawei devices. Huawei is the third-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world and sells its handsets all around the world. So far, the United States is one of the only major markets in which Huawei has not been able to sell its smartphones.
For years, the U.S. government has thwarted Huawei's attempts to penetrate the U.S. and other smartphone markets out of fear that the company is connected to the People's Liberation Army and Chinese government. ZTE, another popular Chinese smartphone manufacturer has received the same treatment in recent years.
Although the U.S. government frequently contends that ZTE and Huawei are not to be trusted because both companies have ties with the Chinese government, no conclusive proof of a connection between the companies and the government have ever been found. Nonetheless, the 2012 report concluded that "acquisitions, takeover or mergers" in the United States proposed by these companies "cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence" and should be denied.
For years, Huawei has complained about its unfair treatment by the U.S. government, arguing that it is a victim of unfounded claims and protectionism. Indeed, the NSA investigation into Huawei could find no evidence that the company has unsavory connections in China or that the company is spying on anyone. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is caught red-handed, spying on Huawei, a private company.
William Plummer, a senior U.S. Huawei executive, found the situation highly ironic. He said that Huawei did not know it was being targeted by the NSA and should feel vindicated, knowing that it has done nothing wrong.
"The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us [Huawei] is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us," he said. "If such espionage has been truly conducted, then it is known that the company is independent and has no unusual ties to any government, and that knowledge should be relayed publicly to put an end to an era of mis- and disinformation."
Huawei also released a public statement, calling on the United States to stop the spying and the lying.
"If the actions in the report are true, Huawei condemns such activities that invaded and infiltrated into our internal corporate network and monitored our communications," the company said in a statement. "Huawei disagrees with all activities that threaten the security of networks and is willing to work with all governments, industry stakeholders and customers, in an open and transparent manner, to jointly address the global challenge of network security."
For its own part, the Chinese government was absolutely furious and demanded an explanation.
"China has lodged complaints to the United States about this many times. We urge the U.S. side to make a clear explanation and stop this kind of acts," said China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. He added that China is "gravely concerned" that these reports of "eavesdropping, surveillance and stealing of secrets by the United States" may prove true.
The U.S. government defended its actions, arguing that the NSA launched its investigation based on legitimate national security concerns. White House spokeswoman, Caitlin M. Hayden, stated that the NSA only hacks into other countries' servers for national security purposes and not, as some countries do, to steal trade secrets and share them with homegrown businesses.
"We do not give intelligence we collect to U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line. Many countries cannot say the same."
Still, it is unlikely that China will take the White House's explanation at face value. Talks between the two countries have only just begun and Xi stated that there are still a lot of topics to cover.