That the Chinese technology company Huawei could eavesdrop on conversations from KPN customers in the past is worrisome, experts say. They also believe that the government should do more against Chinese (economic) espionage in our country.
“For years, intelligence services have been calling for Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies to engage in espionage. There has always been a lack of concrete evidence. This report confirms the rumors and makes it very clear how the Chinese can proceed,” said Sico van der Meer, cyber security researcher at Clingendael Institute.
Van der Meer refers to a secret report about KPN that was released by the Volkskrant ten years later. It states that in 2009 Huawei was able to eavesdrop on KPN mobile numbers without authorization, uncontrolled and unlimited, from both China and KPN buildings. It also concerned the aircraft of the then Prime Minister Balkenende, various ministers and Chinese dissidents. Huawei also knew which numbers were tapped by police and intelligence services.
The company gained unauthorized access to the heart of the mobile network. “Because Huawei was allowed to listen in on parts of calls to check whether the quality was good enough, they could see everything they wanted in the network. KPN gave up all the technology and lost sight of what Huawei was doing exactly,” says cyber security expert Ronald Prins.
It is unclear whether the Chinese company actually used the information. “But the information is of course interesting, which is what other countries would like to know.”
When asked, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced that it would look into the matter more closely. According to the ministry, measures were taken in 2019. Telecom providers have since been obliged to take additional security measures, extra high requirements are set for suppliers of services and products, and developments in threats and technology are structurally monitored. It is unclear whether these measures will be adjusted as a result of this report.
The economic importance that played at KPN at the time of the report – Huawei offered the technology for 25 percent of the costs of other technology companies – will still play a role for many companies, says Van der Meer. “China offers products at rock-bottom prices. That is their strategy, it pushes competitors out of the market,” explains the expert. “In addition, the technology works well, but with a back door.”
That is why it is so important that companies and authorities see this report, so that they become aware of the security risks that may exist, says Van der Meer. “The report proves that Chinese technology is not the most reliable. That’s not to say other countries don’t engage in espionage, but China is notorious for economic espionage.”
That is espionage at companies to steal their ideas, for example. “Then they look at our innovation, steal it through digital espionage, develop the same technology and offer it cheaper. Ultimately, you feel that as a whole society.”
We become technologically dependent on China and also outsource the operational side because of the low costs. It is precisely these reports that show that you should not want that.
Prins is also concerned about this. “Soon there will be no Western party left to supply telecom equipment. After 5G, 6G will come and you can see that it is already being thought out by China. We are becoming so technologically dependent on China and also outsource the operational side because of the low costs. It is precisely these reports that show that you should not want that. “
The Dutch cabinet has already decided that Huawei should not be involved in the construction of the most sensitive parts of the 5G network, due to the risk of espionage. The company may, however, supply parts for the radio and antenna network. According to Van der Meer, it is not unlikely that there will come a point where tougher measures will be taken against Chinese companies. “Perhaps we as the Netherlands should decide with allies that companies like Huawei should be completely banned from all technology.”
Prins also thinks that more is needed in the fight against economic espionage. “We need a lot more government intervention. Now companies are opting for Chinese technology because of the costs involved. As a government, you have to set stricter limits.”
The intelligence services must also do more. he says. “Because this does not only happen in the telecom sector. Spies are also being used to steal our ideas in the sectors in which we as the Netherlands excel, for example the agricultural sector or the maritime sector.”
According to Marietje Schaake, director of International Policy at the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University, it is important that the digital rules become clearer. “Everything that enters the European Union, such as pharmaceutical products, toys, chemicals, must meet European standards. Those criteria are not yet clear enough digitally. Companies that make the technology are one step ahead, legislation is lagging behind.”