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Huawei CTO insists: 'We are not a threat to UK and US national security'

We're just a box and packet shifter like everyone else, says Sanqi Li

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Exclusive A top Huawei exec has dismissed claims that his company poses a threat to British and US national security - despite Western government officials' fears over Huawei's alleged connections to the Chinese Communist Party.

Professor Sanqi Li - speaking in an exclusive interview with The Register at the multinational's R&D centre in Stockholm, Sweden - repeatedly attempted to paint a picture of a benign company that simply deals with "packet in, packet out".

When pressed about Parliament's concerns that Huawei may have too much control over Blighty's critical infrastructure and communications systems - based on claims that the company's chairman (and erstwhile member of the People's Liberation Army) Ren Zhengfei was helping Chinese authorities to spy on the Western world - Li said: "No, we are not a threat".

He added: "There's no substance, just more speculation."

Li, the company's Carrier Business Group CTO, said Huawei, which provides equipment to Britain's one-time national telco BT, was an easy target because it is a Chinese company that operates in the Western world. But he insisted fears of compromised national security presented an industry-wide problem for all tech outfits.

"Because of the internet technologies and the security issues with the new digital age, it becomes much more challenging than what people originally expected," Li said in a clear nod to this year's NSA-GCHQ scandal: "Now you've seen what's happened recently."

He continued: "People thought the infrastructure was the corner point of the security, but it's actually in the data centres and the devices... It's a great challenge. Huawei's position has always been, how to join the community of the world, work together to find the way to solve these security issues."

Li said that the entire industry was having to deal with the fact that different countries and different governments had different controls, rules and regulations. But he described those challenges as being "secondary" to working with the open community to develop standards that help "to solve the security issue".

But what of the specific allegations that Huawei helps the Chinese government's espionage programme?

Li insisted that his company simply provides the kit to operators who then manage those systems.

"Yes, data are passing through the Huawei equipment from a network perspective... packet in, packet out. But it doesn't store the data. We do develop the products to enable carriers to operate the network... most of the intelligence in the data centre is where the data is stored."

He added: "We are the provider of network infrastructure to a great extent. People may have misunderstood a lot of things."

More recently, however, Huawei has moved into the consumer devices market by developing its own range of smartphones, for example. The company's CTO told us - as recently proved by Microsoft's planned buyout of Nokia - it's hard to survive on one technology now. Li said that infrastructure, cloud and devices were key for vendors in today's market.

Li told us he was surprised to hear about claims that some unnamed tech companies based in the US and abroad were alleged to be collaborating with spooks to build backdoors into their equipment.

"I'm glad people recognise the issues are much more complicated in this new digital economy. How do you set the rules, the governance, the policy? It's still unknown," he said.

Li said that having so many apps located in the cloud meant that companies - such as Yahoo! and Google - were "exposed more in the data centre".

He repeatedly claimed that Huawei was simply a provider of equipment to carriers. Li said he was routinely asked the same question about whether the company had provided entry points into its gear for China's government to listen in.

"'You are a Chinese company, you're Huawei', people say, but it's a challenge to all." ®

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