Intelligence warnings about Chinese technology unheeded by B.C. universities

Security assessments are Ottawa’s job, not schools’ work, universities say

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Multiple Canadian universities – including two B.C. schools – are using computing services or accepting money from controversial Chinese tech giant Huawei despite repeated warnings from the country’s intelligence service of Chinese companies’ possible involvement in state-sponsored espionage.

“Beijing will use its commercial position to gain access to businesses, technologies and infrastructure that can be exploited for intelligence objectives, or to potentially compromise a partner’s security,” the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) said in a May academic outreach report.

Indeed, China's 2017 National Intelligence Law says organizations must “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.”

But, said University of British Columbia political science Prof. Michael Byers, it’s not the role of universities to do security assessments on companies they work with. That, he said, is the federal government’s job.

The issue of Chinese expansion of so-called soft power – different from military hard power – has been subject of Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) materials for almost a decade.

In 2016, CSIS told universities China had intensified efforts to control cyberspace to spread Chinese power abroad. Three years earlier, CSIS warned China would use computer systems to wage information warfare and cyber attacks to supplement its military might.

And, the report named Huawei.

The warnings go back to at least 2010. Then, a CSIS report said China “has clearly understood that it is evolving in an era of ‘information-intensive conflict,’ which has led to the expansion of its cyber warfare and exploitation of space capabilities.”

Pascale Massot, a past UBC PhD student and former policy advisor to both the federal minister of foreign affairs and international trade, wrote the report.

Despite these warnings, western Canadian universities such as the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto and Simon Fraser University accepted millions from Huawei or spent millions with the company.

The University of British Columbia received $3 million from Huawei in October 2017 for research and development and communications research, on top of earlier donations, for computing work in the science and engineering faculties.

UBC said Huawei would invest over $10 million in Canadian universities’ research in 2017.

UBC vice president of research and innovation Gail Murphy said in a statement that the university’s involvement with Huawei involves applied research, where organizations engage researchers in projects.

“UBC is not aware of any restrictions regarding working with Huawei and will continue with its partnership with Huawei,” she said.

Also last year, Simon Fraser University said it was adding an advanced research computing system with Huawei as the supplier.

SFU also selected Huawei as the provider for the Huawei Cloud Engine to provide high-speed computer transmissions. The technology was purchased for all three SFU campuses and connected the school to the University of Victoria, the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo.

“We have been working very closely with Huawei engineers to design and implement a complex network plan to interconnect SFU’s existing network, “ computing system administrator Lixin Liu said in an undated Huawei video.

In a statement to Glacier Media, SFU senior director of media relations and public affairs Angela Wilson said the school is the lead university in computer network renewal for Compute Canada, which provides research computing services for SFU, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto and University of Victoria.

Huawei won the renewal bidding process. “After the procurement, Compute Canada works with various partners to secure the network, including with the federal government,” Wilson said.

Wilson said SFU is unaware of restrictions against working with Huawei.

The University of Toronto in September extended a 2016 agreement to work with Huawei for information and communications technologies. The university has taken $3.5 million so far.

Huawei’s website said it intends to spend $500 million on research and development in Canada, 10% of that one research partnerships with Canadian research institutions.

Ottawa has not told universities to stop working with Huawei so cooperation continues.

That flies in the face of bans by other members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance sharing information on global crime, espionage and terrorism. Only Canada and the UK have not barred use of Huawei equipment for next-generation mobile networks. Australia, New Zealand and the United States barred cooperation with Huawei  on next-generation communications technology such as 5G citing national security concerns.

Huawei’s work with Canadian universities is not just in computer technology. The company also funds students and research in Canadian universities as well as providing engineering students travel to China through its Seeds for the Future program.

Note: This story has been updated with comment from Simon Fraser University.