WARSAW – Polish authorities detained and charged the local sales director of Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese national, for conducting high-level espionage on behalf of China, amid widening global scrutiny by Washington and its allies of the technology giant.
The arrest is another bombshell for Huawei, following the early December detention of the company’s chief financial officer in Canada, at the United States’ request, on charges related to Iranian sanctions. Unlike those allegations, the nature of the charges in Poland speak directly to suspicions by Washington and other Western governments that Huawei could be used by Beijing as a global spying tool.
For years, Washington has labeled Huawei a national security threat, saying it could be forced by China to use its knowledge of the telecommunications equipment it sells around the world to tap into, or disable, foreign communications networks. Huawei has denied that forcefully through the years. Part of its defense has been that it hadn’t been implicated in overseas spying allegations.
Officers of Poland’s counterintelligence agency this week searched the local Huawei office, leaving with documents and electronic data, as well as the home of the Chinese national, Poland’s state-owned broadcaster reported Friday. The individual wasn’t named, but was identified as a graduate of one of China’s top intelligence schools, as well as a former employee of the Chinese consulate in the port city of Gdansk.
As part of the same investigation, Poland’s Internal Security Agency also detained one of its own former officials, a Polish citizen who was deputy head of the agency’s IT security department. That person, who wasn’t publicly identified, had knowledge of the inner workings of the Polish government’s encrypted communications network, which is used by its top officeholders, the broadcaster said.
Both men have been charged with espionage, the broadcaster reported, a crime that carries up to 10 years’ imprisonment. They have pleaded not guilty.
“Huawei is aware of the situation, and we are looking into it,” a spokesman for the company said. Poland’s counterintelligence agency couldn’t be reached for comment.
Last month, Canadian authorities, at the behest of US officials, arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on charges she lied to banks about Huawei’s business in Iran. Meng denies the charges.
In 2012, a US congressional report labeled Huawei a national security threat, a finding Huawei said was politically motivated. Huawei has long denied that it is a spying threat, saying that it is owned by its employees and operates independently of Beijing.
The congressional report all but shut the telecom-gear and smartphone maker out of the US market. Still, it flourished overseas, quickly eclipsing Western rivals like Nokia Corp. and Ericsson AB as the world’s biggest seller of telecom gear – equipment like cell towers and switches that enable mobile networks.
For much of last year, American officials redoubled efforts to limit sales of Huawei gear in the US. Some small American carriers, particularly rural ones, use the gear, partly because it is cheap.
Washington also started more recently to press allies aggressively to avoid using Huawei gear. Australia has also been out front raising public concern about Huawei equipment. A number of countries, including Australia, the UK, Germany, New Zealand and Japan have agreed to review their telecom-gear supply chain, or have specifically restricted the sale of Chinese equipment, in the wake of the new scrutiny.
The push from Washington comes as many carriers around the world are starting to roll out 5G, the latest generation of mobile-telecom technology that promises faster connections and is envisioned to help enable internet connections for everything from factories to toothbrushes.
Poland has been Huawei’s top market in Central and Eastern Europe, and its ambitions to roll out 5G equipment in the region have gone farther in Poland than most places outside China. Last year, the government named the company an official partner of its 5G strategy.
In September, Huawei and French telecom company Orange SA’s local unit began installing the first test antennas of a 5G network the two companies hoped to launch together. In November, the prime minister’s office said Huawei would build a science-and-technology center in the capital. It already runs a research-and-development center there.
Counterintelligence agencies elsewhere in the region, however, have been issuing unusually public warnings against Huawei for years, part of broader international scrutiny on cyber vulnerabilities in what is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern flank, a front line for cyberattacks against US allies.
As far back as 2013, the Czech Security Information Service, a domestic security agency, suggested excluding Huawei from public tenders and said the company might be installing backdoors on its equipment to allow outsiders to log into government computers from elsewhere.