World recoils in horror as smartphone maker accused of helping government snoops read encrypted texts, track device whereabouts

Thinking US again? You'd be wrong

Huawei logo on a phone

Comment In a report that has left lawmakers across the globe reeling, the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday claimed a smartphone maker helped government officials in Uganda access encrypted texts on a handset used by one of its own citizens, and track the device's whereabouts.

It is, we think you will agree, virtually unheard of that a manufacturer of telecommunications gear would respond to a request from a country's intelligence services.

It strongly implies that there is some kind of law that gives Uganda's snoops the power to demand and obtain a target's personal communications. Worse, it would appear that this surveillance was not made public – making the WSJ's efforts to bring the truth to the world that much more impressive.

What is remarkable is that the WSJ's investigative team was able to glean this information in a country in which it has but a single reporter. Despite the nation's small impact on the world, or on US interests, the WSJ has seemingly taken an intense interest in Ugandan affairs, covering events in the African nation no less than four times in the past year.

Compare that to, say Hong Kong, which the WSJ has written four stories about in the last four hours, or Mexico which has had three dedicated stories in the past week.

In this case, the WSJ was shown Ugandan police records that identified a member of opposition in Uganda's parliament, Bobi Wine, as the target of a surveillance operation, and listed two engineers from the maker of the cellphone he uses who helped the government track his movements as well as access an encrypted WhatsApp group used to organize street rallies in support of the political opposition.

The WSJ doesn't say how it obtained the documents, though it does reveal that Wine was recently in Washington DC where he had briefed the US government on events in Uganda and had received offers of assistance.

It is absolutely extraordinary that Uganda, a sovereign government, would seek to probe one of its own citizens. That a phone maker would assist in that effort is nothing sort of staggering.

Dogged reporting

The fact that the WSJ was aware of Wine's Washington DC visit, and was able to track down internal police documents revealing Wine's surveillance is testament to the extraordinary skills and resources that the newspaper possesses. It appears the WSJ's single Uganda reporter took time out from writing regional reports about emerging and growth markets to track down highly confidential and politically sensitive documents that fingered state surveillance of a politician.

For reasons that are unclear, however, the WSJ story did not lead with the fact that Uganda has put a Washington-friendly politician under surveillance. Instead the main thrust of the piece was, for some reason, focused almost entirely on the smartphone maker whose engineers helped in the probe. In this case, it was, allegedly, the Chinese manufacturer Huawei.

It is also worth noting that the engineers were, the WSJ claims, brought in to assist members of Uganda's cybersecurity team who were trying, and failing, to use Israeli-made spyware to extract WhatsApp group messages from Wine's phone. The techies were apparently drafted in to get the surveillance tools to work.

The article didn't spend much time digging into why an Israeli outfit had handed, directly or indirectly, snooping software to the Ugandan government. Nor was it very interested in the political repercussions within the African nation. But it was very interested in claiming that the mobile phone enterprise in this case was Huawei. That's HUAWEI.

There is no evidence that the HUAWEI engineers provided any information on Wine to anyone other than the Ugandan authorities. But still, HUAWEI is based in China, even if its engineers in this case weren't, and its phone wasn't, and the person being tracked wasn't either. Nonetheless, HUAWEI is a CHINESE company.

Huawei denies any of this took place.

The fact HUAWEI, allegedly, acceded to the demands of the Ugandan government to track a specific phone using someone else's software is not in any way comparable to the long-standing and absolutely above board and entirely fair systems that exist in the US, UK, and Australia to do more or less the same thing.

It is also worth noting that it is horrifying that HUAWEI engineers helped locate a specific mobile phone for the Ugandan government whereas in the US, you just have to be a bounty hunter to access such information.

As it happens, the US intelligence services are currently engaged in a global information campaign about Huawei in which they have sought to exclude the company and its products from the US and other Western markets by claiming that it represents a security threat, without providing any public proof of that.

Most of those allies have rejected that claim following in-depth security reviews and many are suspicions that the Huawei clampdown is driven more by US business interests than any real threat to security, national or otherwise.

But that small side note is not thought to have had any impact on the Wall Street Journal's extraordinary piece of investigative journalism published this week. ®

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