Flagship Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is offering global telemedicine services to counter the coronavirus pandemic, but U.S. analysts suspect the public health applications will extend China’s high-tech surveillance state overseas.
“These things sound so wonderful that it’s almost easy to forget how dangerous they are,” a senior U.S. official told the Washington Examiner .
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has discouraged allies around the world from partnering with Huawei to build their cutting edge telecommunications networks, arguing that Beijing’s spy services will exploit the next generation wireless technology. Now, Huawei is attempting to follow the coronavirus into countries where public health officials are struggling to identify new cases and provide health care — with ominous implications for intelligence and national security.
“Huawei is an extension of the Chinese state,” the Heritage Foundation’s Klon Kitchen, an expert in the national security and economic implications of technology policy, told the Washington Examiner . "Beijing and Huawei are demonstrating the agility and the ability to kind of take advantage of the moment, and they’re continually trying to integrate themselves further and further into host nation infrastructure and services.”
Huawei officials have made no secret of their hope that they see their pandemic response as a potential tool to counter U.S. pressure.
“The U.S. will continue to increase sanctions on us, and we will have to complete [the new technologies] before that happens,” Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei saidduring a recent interview with the South China Morning Post . “Even when the West is feeling the mounting impact of the coronavirus, most of our projects can actually enhance their capabilities."
The company says it has launched a platform to “use innovative technologies such as cloud and AI to fight the pandemic,” including diagnostic services such as “AI-assisted CT scan analysis.” Huawei has offered “remote temperature monitoring” services to India, one of the world’s largest economies and most important U.S. partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
“5G remote imaging diagnosis platforms for collaboration and 5G medical robots were also used to help care for quarantined patient,” Huawei India told local media. “The success of 5G applications in the public health domain could also inspire businesses in other sectors to leverage 5G’s popularity and explore new applications of the technology.”
That candid marketing strategy, paired with the need to identify and isolate patients infected with the coronavirus as quickly as possible, might induce some health policy officials to import the same kinds of technology that Chinese telecommunications giants have provided to dictators in need of modern surveillance programs.
“The same types of things that they use in networked health systems, software, and hardware are also applicable in other things,” a senior U.S. official told the Washington Examiner . “It’s connectivity plus AI to make usable intelligence about that that you can exploit. So telemedicine becomes a huge dimension of that, of getting all the feeds and things and being able to make diagnoses or other things that give you intel about the person.”
U.S. officials warn that all data provided to Huawei is available to Chinese intelligence analysts. “That information is going to be made available, by law, to the Chinese government, and therefore it is surveillance,” Kitchen emphasized.
The data collection needed to fight the novel coronavirus could be an intelligence officer’s nightmare if the information passes over Huawei systems, according to a former member of President Trump’s national security team.
“This contact tracing? Contact tracing is really about listing out who you’ve been in contact with,” the Hudson Institute’s Rob Spalding, a retired Air Force general, told the Washington Examiner . “So if you’re building a dossier on somebody, if you’re doing contact tracing, you know everybody they have a relationship with.”
If Huawei can help public health officials with contact tracing, it could help Chinese spy agencies figure out, for instance, which government officials are spending the night with women who aren’t their wives.
“The limits are only your own imagination,” the senior U.S. official said.