It’s a company that supplies equipment to 45 of the world’s 50 largest telecoms operators and ships its products to 140 countries. It has 140,000 employees worldwide, and it has research and development centres in 20 countries including the United States, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and India. It’s turnover in 2012 was 220 billion yuan (roughly £22bn) and it’s profits were 15 billion yuan (roughly £1.5bn). In 2008, it was the largest applicant for patents in the world, and by 2011, it had filed 49,000 patents globally and had been granted 17,765.
In the UK, it has 15 offices and 690 employees, with new headquarters in Green Park, Reading in Berkshire. Its customers include BT, Everything Everywhere, Sky, O2, Orange, TalkTalk, and Virgin Media. In September 2012, it announced that it was investing £1.3bn in expanding its UK operations in reply to which Prime Minister David Cameron said the investment demonstrated that the UK is ‘open for business’.
You may not see its logo plastered over handsets, but its products and services support the infrastructure of the world’s best-known mobile phone service providers through which phone calls and data flow around the world. It is the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, having overtaken Ericsson in 2012.
It is the world’s biggest company that most people in the West have never heard of, and its headquarters is in Shenzhen, Guangdong in China. But Huawei (pronounced WAH-way) is at the centre of a debate about cyber security, and about how far western countries are willing to engage with the Chinese company.
The US Congress has done its best to keep Huawei out of the US infrastructure, the House Intelligence Committee describing it as a threat to ‘core national security interests’. In 2012, Huawei, along with ZTE (another telecommunications equipment supplier based in China, and the world’s 4th largest mobile phone manufacturer) faced allegations that some of their equipment had been installed with codes to relay sensitive information back to China. The US’s attitude though may mask the real reasons for their concern. They know from their own experience how imported electronics can be turned into a weapon of espionage and sabotage by the supplier, one notable example being their creation of the Stuxnet worm that was used to damage the Iranian nuclear research program. In any case this official hand-wringing neglects the fact that most electronic components, with the exception of certain high-grade chips, are manufactured in China.
However in the UK back in 2005, BT after consulting the government signed a deal worth £10 billion to purchase Huawei equipment as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a deal that saved the British company millions of pounds. Checks were put in place by BT and government to make sure there was no risk that the Chinese company would act on behalf of the Chinese state by installing back-doors. But in June this year, the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee in their report Foreign Involvement in the Critical National Infrastructure said it was ‘shocked that officials chose not to inform, let alone consult, ministers’ about BT’s use of Huawei equipment until a year after the contract had been signed, a deal in which security issues ‘risked being overlooked’. It also said that the self-policing arrangements by Huawei were ‘highly unlikely to provide the required levels of security assurance’.