Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Was Huawei listening in on KPN's mobile network?

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Monday 19 April 21

A report from Dutch newspaper de Volksrant cites a private report from Capgemini that says Huawei could eavesdrop on mobile calls in 2010

In the past year, various people and governments, often at the behest of the US, have argued against Huawei taking part in national 5G networks due to concerns of national security. Huawei maintains its innocence and, in fact, there seems to be little to no evidence of the Chinese vendor acting suspiciously via its network equipment. That could be about to change, however, since a story published by Dutch newspaper de Volksrant this weekend has suggested that the vendor was able to eavesdrop on operator KPN&rsquo…

In the past year, various people and governments, often at the behest of the US, have argued against Huawei taking part in national 5G networks due to concerns of national security. Huawei maintains its innocence and, in fact, there seems to be little to no evidence of the Chinese vendor acting suspiciously via its network equipment.

That could be about to change, however, since a story published by Dutch newspaper de Volksrant this weekend has suggested that the vendor was able to eavesdrop on operator KPN’s mobile network in 2010. Calls that may have been compromised include the operator’s then 6.5 million subscribers.

The story begins back in 2009, when KPN first began using Huawei technology for the core of its network. During the installation of Huawei’s core technology, six Huawei employees were working at KPN’s headquarters at The Hague. At the time, the Dutch intelligence and security service AIVD (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst) suggested that Huawei could be engaged in espionage, leading KPN to commission a private report by Capgemini in 2010.

The results of the report were damning, suggesting that Huawei staff both within KPN and back in China could in fact eavesdrop on unauthorised, uncontrolled, and unlimited KPN mobile numbers. This security compromise even reached as far as the upper echelons of Dutch politics, with even then prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende’s calls potentially spied on.

The results of the Capgemini report were so controversial that the report itself noted that it represented a serious threat to the future of KPN itself.

“The continued existence of KPN Mobile is in serious danger because permits may be revoked or the government and businesses may give up their confidence in KPN if it becomes known that the Chinese government can eavesdrop on KPN mobile numbers and shut down the network," read the report.

As a result, the report was buried in red tape for the past decade. 

In response to the news story, KPN has acknowledged the report’s existence, but said that allegations of Huawei staff being able to listen in to their mobile network were untrue, and that they have never detected customer data being stolen or eavesdropping taking place. They also said that the network upgrades that took place in 2010 were conducted by KPN employees who were supported by staff from Huawei; as a result of the report, the company took the decision not to outsource the maintenance of its core network.

Huawei have said that at no point did they have unauthorised access to KPN’s network or data, and they have no extracted any data from the network. The company highlighted that it had at all points worked under the explicit authorisation of KPN.

Dutch MPs from across the political spectrum are now calling on the government to release a statement based on the news. 

Last year, KPN notably said that they do not expect a complete ban on Huawei equipment, but they nonetheless turned to Ericsson for their 5G core equipment. However, they still use Huawei extensively within its 4G network and any decision to ban the vendor would come as a major blow.

To further complicate matters, rumours have been circulating in recent weeks that KPN could soon face a $15 billion takeover bid from EQT and Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners. To what extent these recent allegations related to Huawei may impact such a deal remain to be seen.

 

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