WASHINGTON — U.S. officials have long considered Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, a security threat, blocking it from business deals in the United States for fear that the company would create “backdoors” in its equipment that could allow the Chinese military or Beijing-backed hackers to steal corporate and government secrets.
But even as the United States made a public case about the dangers of buying from Huawei, classified documents show that the National Security Agency was creating its own backdoors – directly into Huawei’s networks.
The agency pried its way into the servers in Huawei’s sealed headquarters in Shenzhen, China’s industrial heart, according to NSA documents provided by the former contractor Edward J. Snowden. It obtained information about the workings of the giant routers and complex digital switches that Huawei boasts connect one-third of the world’s population, and monitored communications of the company’s top executives.
One of the goals of the operation, code-named “Shotgiant,” was to find any links between Huawai and the People’s Liberation Army, one 2010 document made clear. But the agency’s plans went further: to exploit Huawai’s technology so that when the company sold equipment to other countries, the NSA could roam through their computer and telephone networks to conduct surveillance and, if ordered by the president, offensive cyberoperations.
“Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products,” the NSA document said. “We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products.”
The documents were disclosed by The New York Times and Der Spiegel, and are also part of a book by Der Spiegel, “The NSA Complex.”
U.S. officials have repeatedly said the NSA breaks into foreign networks only for legitimate national security purposes. A White House spokeswoman, Caitlin M. Hayden, said: “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.”
But that does not mean the U.S. government does not conduct its own form of corporate espionage with a different set of goals. Those concerning Huawei were described in the 2010 document.
“If we can determine the company’s plans and intentions,” an analyst wrote, “we hope that this will lead us back to the plans and intentions of the PRC,” referring to the People’s Republic of China.
William Plummer, a senior Huawei executive in the United States, said that in his personal opinion, “The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us.”