A new front has opened in the battle between the US and China over control of global networks that deliver the internet. This one is beneath the ocean.
While the US wages a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks over fears of espionage, the company is embedding itself into undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s internet data.
About 380 active submarine cables—bundles of fiber-optic lines that travel oceans on the seabed—carry about 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, making them critical for the economies and national security of most countries.
Current and former security officials in the US and allied governments now worry that these cables are increasingly vulnerable to espionage or attack and say the involvement of Huawei potentially enhances China’s capabilities.
Huawei Marine’s Undersea Cable Network
The Chinese company, majority owned by Huawei Technologies, has worked on some 90 projects to build or upgrade submarine cables around the world.
Huawei denies any threat. The US hasn’t publicly provided evidence of its claims that Huawei technology poses a cybersecurity risk. Its efforts to persuade other countries to sideline the company’s communication technology have been met with skepticism by some.
Huawei Marine Networks Co., majority owned by the Chinese telecom giant, completed a 3,750-mile cable between Brazil and Cameroon in September. It recently started work on a 7,500-mile cable connecting Europe, Asia and Africa and is finishing up links across the Gulf of California in Mexico.
Altogether, the company has worked on some 90 projects to build or upgrade seabed fiber-optic links, gaining fast on the three US, European and Japanese firms that dominate the industry.
These officials say the company’s knowledge of and access to undersea cables could allow China to attach devices that divert or monitor data traffic—or, in a conflict, to sever links to entire nations.
Such interference could be done remotely, via Huawei network management software and other equipment at coastal landing stations, where submarine cables join land-based networks, these officials say.
“We are acutely aware of counterintelligence and security threats to undersea cables from a variety of actors,” said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “Given that undersea cables carry the bulk of the world’s telecommunications data, safeguarding these cables remains a key priority for the US government and its allies.”
So far, Western allies have pushed the company out of at least one international project and tried unsuccessfully to thwart another.
Huawei Marine said in an email that no customer, industry player or government has directly raised security concerns about its products and operations.
Joe Kelly, a Huawei spokesman, said the company is privately owned and has never been asked by any government to do anything that would jeopardize its customers or business. “If asked to do so,” he said, “we would refuse.”
The US has been lobbying allies hard, warning Germany in recent days that it would limit intelligence sharing with Berlin if Huawei built the country’s next-generation mobile-internet infrastructure.
Last week, Huawei filed a lawsuit in a US court challenging a law that restricts federal agencies from doing business with the company.
Longer term, the US and some of its allies see Huawei and its undersea cable business as part of China’s strategy to boost its global influence by building telecom infrastructure and exporting digital technology, including surveillance tools.
The US has sought to block Huawei from its own telecom infrastructure, including undersea cables, since at least 2012. American concerns about subsea links have since deepened—and spread to allies—as China moves to erode US dominance of the world’s internet infrastructure.
“This is another vector by which Huawei gets into the infrastructure of another country,” said retired Lt. Gen. William Mayville, who until last year was deputy commander of US Cyber Command.
“Failing to respond to Huawei Marine cedes space to China,” he said. “The US and its partners must meet and compete.”
Undersea cables are owned mainly by telecom operators and, in recent years, by such content providers as Facebook and Google. Smaller players rent bandwidth.
Most users can’t control which cable systems carry their data between continents. A handful of switches typically route traffic along the path considered best, based on available capacity and agreements between cable operators.
The Internet’s Undersea Arteries
Roughly 380 active submarine cables carry almost all the world’s intercontinental internet traffic via about 1,000 landing stations.
With many more cables expected to be built in the coming years to service ballooning bandwidth demand from 5G and other services, the US and its allies are exploring ways to address potential threats, especially from China.
US-led efforts to crimp Huawei’s undersea cable business, as with 5G, have had mixed success.
In June 2017, Nick Warner, then head of Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, traveled to the Solomon Islands, a strategically located South Pacific archipelago. His mission, according to people familiar with the visit, was to block a 2016 deal with Huawei Marine to build a 2,500-mile cable connecting Sydney to the Solomons.
Mr. Warner told the Solomons’ prime minister the deal would give China a connection to Australia’s internet grid through a Sydney landing point, creating a cyber risk, these people said. Australia later announced it would finance the cable link and steered the contract to an Australian company.
“The concern was China could have an ability to in-build security vulnerabilities,” an Australian security official said. “It really mirrors the issues with 5G.”
In another recent clash, the US, Australia and Japan tried unsuccessfully in September to quash an undersea-cable deal between Huawei Marine and Papua New Guinea.
Huawei Marine said it uses some hardware and network management software from its Chinese parent company, and was “willing to make any product available to any security expert or government agency for evaluation.”
Industry representatives and some experts say most security risks in the undersea cable system can be mitigated. While submarine cables can be physically cut or disabled, technology makes it more difficult to intercept data undetected, said Kent Bressie, legal adviser to the International Cable Protection Committee, an industry group that includes Huawei Marine.
Landing stations are usually protected by fencing, guards and security cameras, Mr. Bressie said, and network management systems are designed to be walled off from the broader internet.
“If there are new risks or information that industry doesn’t have,” Mr. Bressie said, “there needs to be communication from governments to operators.”
US and allied officials point to China’s record of cyber intrusions, growing Communist Party influence inside Chinese firms and a recent Chinese law requiring companies to assist intelligence operations.
Landing stations are more exposed in poorer countries where cyber defenses tend to be weakest, US and allied officials said. And network management systems are generally operated using computer servers at risk of cyber intrusion. Undersea cables are vulnerable, officials said, because large segments lie in international waters, where physical tampering can go undetected.
At least one US submarine can hack into seabed cables, defense experts said. In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden alleged that Britain and the US monitored submarine cable data.
The US and its allies now fear such tactics could be used against them. American and British military commanders warned recently that Russian submarines were operating near undersea cables.
Last year, the US sanctioned a Russian company for supplying Russian spies with diving equipment to help tap seabed cables.
China seeks to build a Digital Silk Road, including undersea cables, terrestrial and satellite links, as part of its Belt and Road plan to finance a new global infrastructure network.
A Pentagon report in January said these projects, while benefiting host countries, could help China obtain foreign technology and “enable politically motivated censorship.”
Chinese government strategy papers on the Digital Silk Road cite the importance of undersea cables, as well as Huawei’s role in them.
A research institute attached to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, in a paper published in September, praised Huawei’s technical prowess in undersea cable transmission and said China was poised to become “one of the world’s most important international submarine cable communication centers within a decade or two.” China’s foreign and technology ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Huawei Marine said it had no official role in either the Belt and Road or Digital Silk Road programs. Huawei Marine has a Communist Party committee, as Chinese law requires, but said the committee had no management authority.
Huawei Marine, based in the Chinese port of Tianjin, was formed in a 2008 venture with Global Marine Systems, a British company with ships to handle undersea cables. Global Marine was a successor to the entity that laid the first undersea telegraph cable in 1850, which connected England to France.
Huawei owns 51%. Global Marine’s 49% stake is in play: Parent company HC2 Holdings , headed by former hedge-fund manager Philip Falcone, said in October it was exploring a potential sale. That would open the door for Huawei or another Chinese company to take full ownership, which could require approval by British authorities.
Britain’s national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, told a parliamentary hearing in 2017 that attacks on undersea cables could have “the same effect as used to be achieved in, say, World War II by bombing the London docks or taking out a power station.”
HC2 and Global Marine both referred questions on Huawei Marine to Huawei, which declined to comment.
Early on, Huawei set its sights on expanding its business to the US In 2007, Huawei Technologies installed equipment to upgrade the Hibernia Atlantic trans-Atlantic cable between landing stations in Lynn, Mass., and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In 2011, Huawei Marine again upgraded the Hibernia Atlantic cable. It also agreed to build and provide $250 million in financing for a new trans-Atlantic link called Project Express, connecting New York and London for the financial industry.
Bjarni Thorvardarson, then chief executive of the cable’s Ireland-based operator, said US authorities raised no objections until 2012, when a congressional report declared Huawei Technologies a national security threat.
Mr. Thorvardarson wasn’t convinced. “It was camouflaged as a security risk, but it was mostly about a preference for using US technology,” he said. Under pressure, Mr. Thorvardarson dropped Huawei Marine from Project Express in 2013. The older cable network continued to use Huawei equipment.
Virginia-based GTT Communications now operates the cables formerly known as Hibernia Atlantic and Project Express, and it recently won a contract to provide trans-Atlantic communications for the Pentagon. GTT and the Pentagon both declined to say if the cables still used Huawei technology.
Huawei Marine hasn’t worked on US-connected cables since 2013. Elsewhere, it has thrived.
The company is now the fourth-biggest player in an industry long dominated by US-based SubCom and Finnish-owned Alcatel Submarine Networks. Japan’s NEC Corp is in third place.
Huawei Marine is expected to complete 28 cables between 2015 and 2020—nearly a quarter of all those built globally—and it has upgraded many more, according to TeleGeography, a research company.
Some of the cables connect to US allies, including Britain, Canada and France. Government agencies in those countries declined to say whether those cables still used Huawei technology.
Most other Huawei Marine projects are in the developing world, including newer ones financed by China’s state-owned companies.
The Brazil-Cameroon link was financed by Export and Import Bank of China and China Unicom , a Chinese telecom operator. The new Asia-Africa-Europe cable, financed by China Construction Bank , will connect Pakistan and Djibouti, where China opened its first overseas naval base in 2017.
In Pakistan, the cable network will land in Gwadar, a port China is developing as part of Belt and Road and where US officials believe Beijing wants to open a naval facility, which China has denied. The cable is planned to connect to a land-based link with China.
The Wall Street Journal