Former foreign minister Alexander Downer looks a little uncomfortable in a picture snapped of him with his fellow Australian-based board members of Chinese technology giant Huawei.
That picture is now getting a lot more attention following news NBN Co has effectively banned Huawei from tendering for lucrative national broadband network contracts on cyber security advice from ASIO.
Downer joined the board of Huawei in June last year as the company, headed by former People’s Liberation Army member Ren Zhengfei, sought to improve its relationships with the government.
That’s now looking like a major failure for Downer – despite NBN Co executives reportedly travelling to Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzen to see first hand how it operates, it wasn’t enough to convince ASIO it should give NBN Co the green light.(Clarification: NBN Co has since said there have not been any visits to Huawei headquarters by NBN Co executives).
The block has potential to become a political sore point for federal Labor, given its broad nature, and the fact NBN Co has already done numerous deals with other offshore companies from countries including America and France.
Huawei’s global head of cyber security is John Suffolk, the former UK government chief information officer, and Huawei is a supplier to the UK’s national broadband network – further proof that the Chinese firm’s international pedigree is not good enough for Australian security agencies.
It’s unlikely ASIO will ever specifically detail its concerns about Huawei, but The Australian reported in 2009 that ASIO officers had met with Huawei employees to discuss company technician links to the PLA. Huawei has in the past labelled accusations of espionage as "faceless”, and the company is still standing firm despite the latest setback, with its head of public affairs telling the AFR Huawei is happy to have its equipment independently audited.
The government doesn’t appear willing to change its mind. "We have a responsibility to do our utmost to protect (the NBN’s) integrity and that of the information carried on it” was the response the Australian Financial Review received from Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s office on breaking the story over the weekend.
At the heart of the issue lies concerns of potential ‘backdoor‘ access to Huawei infrastructure. Conspiracy theorists use this to argue a vendor with links to a government could allow said government to listen in and potentially block content on the network.
Huawei has in the past offered to share the source code of its network equipment to allay this fear, but in a dynamically changing technology environment upgrades to code are common, which begs the question, is there an issue with NBN Co’s ability to closely monitor suppliers in real time?
And the truth is, there is frightening precedent of governments messing with the critical infrastructure of other governments.
The Stuxnet virus, which was so sophisticated many argued it looked like the work of state-backed professionals, targeted Iran’s nuclear program. Iran was later forced to replace expensive centrifuges at its nuclear facilities.
This type of cyber warfare is sadly becoming more common, and it would be naive to think Australia is immune. In this instance Australia is in lockstep with the US, its partner on so many issues, but it can only be damaging to Canberra's relationship with China.
It was just a little over a year ago that major NBN supplier and former Mike Quigley employer Alcatel Lucent was forced to pay $137 million to settle a bribery case with the US Department of Justice. It might be a leap to compare bribery with cyber security, but to China the ASIO decision will smack of double standards.