- But Huawei employees have provided other services, not disclosed publicly. Technicians from the Chinese powerhouse have, in at least two cases, personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts, according to senior security officials working directly with the Huawei employees in these countries.
In Kampala, Uganda, last year, a group of six intelligence officers struggled to contain a threat to the 33-year regime of President Yoweri Museveni, according to Ugandan senior security officials. A pop star turned political sensation, Bobi Wine, had returned from Washington with U.S. backing for his opposition movement, and Uganda’s cyber-surveillance unit had strict orders to intercept his encrypted communications, using the broad powers of a 2010 law that gives the government the ability “to secure its multidimensional interests.”
According to these officials, the team, based on the third floor of the capital’s police headquarters, spent days trying to penetrate Mr. Wine’s WhatsApp and Skype communications using spyware developed by an Israeli company, but failed. Then they asked for help from the staff working in their offices from Huawei, Uganda’s top digital supplier.
“The Huawei technicians worked for two days and helped us puncture through,” said one senior officer at the surveillance unit. The Huawei engineers, identified by name in internal police documents reviewed by the Journal, used the Israeli-made spyware to penetrate Mr. Wine’s WhatsApp chat group, named Firebase crew after his band. Authorities scuppered his plans to organize street rallies and arrested the politician and dozens of his supporters.
The incident in Uganda and another in Zambia, as detailed in a Wall Street Journal investigation, show how Huawei employees have used the company’s technology and other companies’ products to support the domestic spying of those governments.
Since 2012 the U.S. government has accused Huawei—the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and second largest manufacturer of smartphones—of being a potential tool for the Chinese government to spy abroad, after decades of alleged corporate espionage by state-backed Chinese actors. Huawei has forcefully denied those charges.
The Journal investigation didn’t turn up evidence of spying by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa. Nor did it find that Huawei executives in China knew of, directed or approved the activities described. It also didn’t find that there was something particular about the technology in Huawei’s network that made such activities possible.
Details of the operations, however, offer evidence that Huawei employees played a direct role in government efforts to intercept the private communications of opponents.
Huawei has “never been engaged in ‘hacking’ activities,” said a Huawei spokesman in a written statement. “Huawei rejects completely these unfounded and inaccurate allegations against our business operations. Our internal investigation shows clearly that Huawei and its employees have not been engaged in any of the activities alleged. We have neither the contracts, nor the capabilities, to do so.”