Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has joined a growing list of counterparts in other countries that are urging caution in doing business with the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei. In its annual threat evaluation on Monday, PST pointed to China and Russia as posing the greatest cyber threats, and asked authorities to keep an eye on Huawei.
Benedicte Bjørnland, chief of PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste), stressed that the biggest threat to Norway still comes from Islamist extremists. Both Russia and China, however, are more than capable of carrying out intelligence gathering operations “against Norway and Norwegian interests.” Norway has no security policy cooperation with either country, and both, Bjørnland said, “have cyber capabilities that make them able to steal information from Norway in the cyber domain.”
Bjørnland noted at Monday’s press conference on threats facing Norway how China has an intelligence law that compels both private operations like Huawei and individuals to cooperate with Chinese authorities if asked to do so. “We have said that everyone needs to pay attention to Huawei as a player in connection with the 5G network that will be built out,” Bjørnland told reporters, “not because we think there’s anything wrong with Huawei and its people who work in Norway, but Huawei as a company has apparently tight connections to Chinese authorities.”
Several countries including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan have blocked Huawei from taking part in their development of the next telecoms network, 5G. They all fear Huawei’s participation would open them up to spying by Chinese authorities. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported in December that the Norwegian government was likely to make it more difficult for mobile phone operators to choose Huawei as a supplier for building out the 5G network.
Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara of the Progress Party, who joined Bjørnland at Monday’s PST briefing, later announced that measures would be introduced to reduce the vulnerability of the Norwegian network. The goal is to hinder Norway’s large mobile operators Telenor, Telia and Ice from choosing equipment suppliers that could threaten the nation’s and their users’ security. Huawei is the prime target.
Both Telenor and Telia use Huawei’s mobile network systems in the current 4G network. Their pilot projects for 5G have also been supplied by 5G, but alarms are ringing. Wara wrote, in answering a question from MP Sigbjørn Gjelsvik of the Center Party, that the ministry of transport and communications was evaluating new measures that will contribute to further reducing vulnerability in the Norwegian communications network. He pointed specifically to “acquisition of equipment for 5G.” He later told news bureau Reuters that Norway shared the concerns of its major allies, Great Britain and the US, over Huawei. Norway was also worried, he said, that private and public players in Norway could be subjected to espionage.
Company and China fight back
Huawei and Chinese authorities are predictably upset by all the suspicion around their operations, with Huawei stressing that it’s a private company and not beholden to Chinese authorities. Huawei’s head of security in Norway has contested Bjørnland’s concerns of “tight connections” to Chinese authorities.
“Huwawei will never give any countries’ authorities access to information,” Tore Larsen Orderløkken, security director for Huawei in Norway, told DN last month. “We are a global concern with 180,000 employees in 170 countries and it’s the employees who own us, not the Chinese state. We have no ties to Chinese authorities apart from having headquarters in China.”
Huawei thus feels it’s in a “difficult situation” simply because it’s a Chinese company. It went so far as to unveil a “security center” that will be built at its offices at Fornebu west of Oslo. It’s aimed at providing customers, partners and Norwegian authorities insight into Huawei’s deliveries to the upcoming 5G network. Billions worth of business agreements are at stake “and these are important agreement for us.” Huawei is also asking for meetings with government officials, to plead its case that it’s not a security risk for Norway.
Chinese authorities, meanwhile, have accused skeptical governments and customers of “fabricating” stories about Huawei, and are warning that any boycott of Huawei will have “serious consequences” for global economic and academic cooperation. They accuse the US of pressuring its allies (like Norway) into not letting Huawei build out their 5G networks.
Awkward, after finally re-establishing relations
Norwegian authorities have been keen to do business with China after the two countries finally settled a diplomatic freeze over the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Norwegian government has been accused internally in Norway of overlooking human rights abuses by China’s authoritarian government in order to sell more salmon, for example. Given the eagerness of the Norwegian government to appease China, it’s not been certain that Norway would block its state-controlled Telenor or other Norwegian companies from doing business with Huawei.
Now the pressure has risen to do just that, given PST’s warning on Monday. To further complicate matters, Jon Georg Dale, the government minister in charge of transport and communications, has stepped out of the fray because of a possible conflict of interest: DN reported that Dale is a good friend of Vidar Brein-Karlsen, a former government state secretary who now works as a director for Huawei Norge. Fisheries Minister Harald Tom Nesvik, also of the Progress Party, has stepped in to take over for Dale on issues involving Huawei. And Justice Minister Wara is involved as well.
Telenor ‘following situation closely’
Telenor’s mangement, meanwhile, claims it’s acutely aware of the sensitivities of doing business with Huawei and is “following the situation closely,” according to its communications chief Hanne Knudsen. “We make strong security demands to all our suppliers, regardless of which country they come from,” Knudsen told DN.
PST, meanwhile, noted that it can be difficult for companies like Telenor to uncover any spying or infiltration of data network operations. “Our impression is that Norway as a nation is vulnerable also because we are one of the world’s most digitalized societies,” Bjørnland said. “Major portions of our values are managed in the digital domain. We want people to be aware of that, so that those who own and manage these values are clear about the threats and reduce their own vulnerability. Don’t be naive.”
She believes the potential for damage is great. “We can be tapped into for information involving considerable values, personally sensitive information, preparedness or defense,” Bjørnland said. Data attacks by foreign players are difficult to uncover, investigate or prosecute, she noted: “You can sit safely in your own homeland and carry out these types of operations without risking any reaction. You can’t call another country into court. In that sense, we lack international regulations that settle differences between states.”