Africa embraces Huawei technology despite security concerns

Gwagwa pointed to the Chinese secret service law implemented in 2017 as a potential danger for users. “Some of the vulnerabilities in the Chinese equipment are intentional, they are introduced for malicious purposes,” he explained. 

For example, China’s national intelligence law, enacted in June 2017, requires Chinese companies to collect secret information.”

Gwagwa interprets this law as requiring intelligence services to cooperate with Chinese companies, including compelling installation of “backdoors” and providing private data to the government.

Hidden from the end-user are so-called middleboxes: These distribution stations forward information and are capable of filtering and manipulating information.

Valentin Weber, a cybersecurity expert from the German Council on Foreign Relations, and colleague Vasilis Vesveris analyzed data streams around Huawei’s middleboxes. They found that in 17 countries, the device blocked certain websites. Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Burundi, and South Africa were affected.

Burundian Outlet Blocked
In Burundi, the online content of several critical media outlets has been blocked, including that of DW partner Iwacu. Weber told DW that the local media watchdog had promised to allow access to the sites again. “But we can see that those websites are still being blocked, despite the efforts of the media watchdogs.”

Iwacu’s editor-in-chief, Leandre Sikuyavuga, confirmed that the outlet’s website is still not accessible in Burundi.

It’s damaging because it limits freedom of expression generally — a fundamental principle in a constitutional state,” Sikuyavuga told DW.

Huawei did not respond to a DW query about whether the telecom company knew about the events in Burundi or censorship in other African countries using Huawei hardware.

Huawei components are attractive in this context, said Gwagwa: “Authoritarian African governments see the benefit of customized censorship mechanisms in the Huawei infrastructure. They can use the vulnerability of the Chinese equipment for surveillance and other malicious purposes for them to hold on to political power.”

Uganda: Eavesdropping on Bobi Wine
In 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei employees were directly involved in obtaining messages from the smartphone of Ugandan opposition leader and presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine.

Police had stormed a concert where opposition politicians were set to appear. Wine and dozens of supporters were arrested. Huawei later denied it had anything to do with the events.

Meanwhile, surveillance in Uganda with help from the Huawei middleboxes could be far more wide-reaching. According to Weber and Ververis, the capital Kampala is one African location designated as a future destination for “safe city” technology from Huawei. “Safe city” is a byword for a network of surveillance cameras that use facial recognition technology. The justification for this is crime prevention.

Safe city” tech could mean trouble in countries without strong constitutional standing.”If you consider that websites can be blocked, that all streets can be watched, you can imagine that the government has more power to stamp its authority and do whatever it wants,” Weber said.

Huawei did not respond to an inquiry about other African locations with “safe city” technology. However, Weber and Ververis believe Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Accra could be being monitored. 

Technology-Decisions Could Affect Generations
Huawei’s market power in Africa puts the group in a favorable position to provide the next generations of technology. 

People often buy ‘legacy systems’: they want the new devices to be compatible with the old ones,” said Weber. In addition, such devices must continue to be maintained by Huawei, providing a continued foot in the door for the Chinese company.

For this reason, Gwagwa wants to see Africa’s civil society ensure that “a Chinese digital Silk Road, which will affect generations to come, is being deployed with due respect to human rights.”

David Ehl is a freelance journalist.This article is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).