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Security

The politics surrounding 'rip and replace' go nuclear

According to two separate reports, the Biden administration has engaged in yet another investigation into whether equipment from China's Huawei and ZTE poses a national security threat. This time, however, specific details have emerged about what intelligence officials have discovered so far and exactly what they're worried about.

For example, according to a CNN report citing unnamed sources, Chinese spies could hack into high-definition surveillance cameras located atop cell towers used by Viaero Wireless. Those cameras, located along stretches of Interstate 25 in Colorado and Montana, could potentially provide information on the military traffic to and from nuclear missile silos in the area. Roughly 1,000 Viaero cell towers host Huawei equipment.

(Source: Karlis Dambrans on Flickr, CC 2.0)
(Source: Karlis Dambrans on Flickr, CC 2.0)

"This gets into some of the most sensitive things we do," one former FBI official with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.

Scaring up cash

It's painfully clear that the new reports are intended to scare lawmakers into releasing more money for the FCC's "rip and replace" effort (officially dubbed the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program). The program designed to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from US networks is expected to cost about $5 billion, but so far, Congress has only allocated around $2 billion. Either Congress coughs up more cash, or the companies in the program will have to make do with just 39% of what they say they need to get rid of "untrusted" equipment.

That funding shortfall made official just last week appears to be loosening Beltway tongues. Citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported late last week that the Biden administration is investigating whether Huawei gear "could capture sensitive information from military bases and missile silos that the company could then transmit to China."

The CNN article, published earlier this week, offered more details about FBI investigations conducted during the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. Fears over Chinese espionage sit at the heart of the issue.

"Failure to provide additional resources risks putting the success of the STCN [Secure and Trusted Communications Network] Reimbursement Program, as well as the security of the United States, in jeopardy," argue some of the operators involved in the "rip and replace" program, including Viaero Wireless. That's what they wrote in a letter sent late last week to Congressional leaders, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

According to Politico, legislators are listening. For example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted this month to include extra "rip and replace" funding in a bill that would reauthorize the FCC's spectrum auction authority, which expires September 30.

However, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which represents some of the carriers involved in the "rip and replace" program, is pushing for an immediate appropriation of $3 billion. The association warns against waiting for some yet-to-be-scheduled FCC spectrum sale to fund the program.

Secret proof

I don't have any direct insight into the security concerns surrounding Huawei and ZTE equipment. But I do know these concerns are not new. And I know there are still some outstanding questions.

Specifically, the House Intelligence Committee released a report in 2012 detailing security concerns involving Chinese telecom equipment suppliers like ZTE and Huawei. In response, FBI officials began looking into the situation during the Obama administration, according to CNN. But it wasn't until 2019, during the Trump administration, that the investigation results were widely shared with White House officials and others.

As a result of those findings, the FCC and other government agencies moved to block the sale of Huawei and ZTE equipment in the US, and to remove it from existing US networks.

However, the US government so far hasn't released any detailed information outlining the specific security threats posed by ZTE and Huawei equipment. It's also worth noting that, according to both CNN and Reuters, the Biden administration apparently believes another investigation into the matter is warranted.

One US official told CNN that the newest investigation "has proceeded slowly and is ongoing."

Further, CNN reported that some former counterintelligence officials "expressed frustration" that the US government isn't providing more details about its findings.

"A current FBI official said the bureau is giving more defensive briefings to US businesses, academic institutions and state and local governments that include far more detail than in the past, but officials are still fighting an uphill battle," according to CNN.

Left in the dark

Indeed, the companies involved in the "rip and replace" program certainly seem underinformed. For example, Viaero CEO Frank DiRico told CNN that he was never told to remove Huawei equipment or to make any changes.

"In fact, DiRico first learned of government concerns about Huawei equipment from newspaper articles – not the FBI – and says he has never been briefed on the matter," according to CNN.

Similarly, Triangle Communications CEO Craig Gates told Politico he doesn't believe that his network's proximity to nuclear weapon silos poses any security risks. He also said that the ongoing delays around "rip and replace" funding undercut the government's security argument.

"Handle it like it's a national security issue," Gates told Politico. "Don't handle it like, 'Well, you know, three years later, we'll get to it'."

Incredibly, Chinese officials have made similar arguments.

"The US has to provide evidence to prove its so-called 'national security' concerns, and how the data can be transferred to China," Xiang Ligang told Global Times, a Chinese state-run publication, last week. Xiang is the director general of the Beijing-based Information Consumption Alliance.

"Smearing Chinese firms, including Huawei, and creating barriers for their development, is the true intention behind the investigation, and it is set to backfire," Xiang added.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

The problem here is that the US government's case against Huawei and ZTE equipment hasn't been made with evidence and sunshine. Instead, it's being made via a whisper campaign full of anonymous sources and vague, threatening details.

In some cases, it also stretches credulity. For example, CNN provides a lengthy discussion of the high-definition surveillance cameras located atop Viaero cell towers. According to the article, those cameras were designed to provide live broadcasts of interstate traffic, and video from the cameras was shared with local news outlets. The video feed was already public. So, does that mean interstate traffic is a national secret now?

But wait, there's more.

According to CNN, "Officials believed that it was possible for Beijing's intelligence service to 'task' the cameras – hack into the network and control where they pointed. At least some of the cameras in question were running on Huawei networks."

So, China sold millions of dollars of Huawei equipment to Viaero in order to get ahold of traffic cameras ... and maybe point them away from the interstate?

To be clear, I'm not at all arguing that China is innocent here. I think it's extremely likely that both the US and China engage in extensive espionage against each other. I'm also pretty sure that whatever investigations the FBI has conducted are thorough.

My point is that the "rip and replace" program has been mired in questions and uncertainties for years now. And the latest revelations from Reuters and CNN don't clear any of them up. Instead, they simply stand as another example of the shady political machinations that are ultimately guiding billions of dollars in US government spending.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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