Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, speaks on screen during a virtual conversation at a featured session at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Huawei Trolls U.S. on Spy Claims With a Jab at Snowden

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government and Huawei Technologies Co. are grappling for air time in a war of words over network security at the phone industry’s biggest trade show.

Telecom carriers at MWC Barcelona are stuck in the middle of the conflict, which has become a lightning rod for the broader trade war between China and the U.S.

The Trump administration is calling on executives and governments to shun Huawei and its Chinese peers when building new networks. Robert Strayer, who leads cybersecurity policy at the U.S. State Department, said American officials have “substantial concerns” over state-ordered spying.

Huawei Trolls U.S. on Spy Claims With a Jab at Snowden

“Chinese law requires these firms to support and assist Beijing’s vast security apparatus,” Strayer said in a briefing with journalists on Tuesday. The U.S. has made “great progress” talking to governments about the need to build secure networks, he said.

Earlier in the day, Huawei’s rotating Chairman Guo Ping delivered what might have been his boldest defense yet to U.S. accusations that the Shenzhen-based company’s products could be used for espionage. The U.S. had “no evidence, nothing” to back those claims, Ping told a a packed main auditorium.

Ping even went on the offensive, pointing to a U.S. federal law that compels U.S. tech companies to provide law enforcement officials with requested data stored on servers -- even if they’re located on foreign soil.

“Prism, prism on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?" Ping asked, drawing laughter and scattered applause. “It is a very important question and if you don’t answer that, you can go and ask Edward Snowden.”

Snowden, a former National Security Agency subcontractor, leaked documents revealing the NSA’s use of U.S.-made telecom equipment for spying.

In an opinion piece published in the Financial Times on Wednesday, Ping said the fusillade against Huawei is a direct result of Washington’s realization that the U.S. has fallen behind in developing 5G technology and has little to do with security.

Carriers including Deutsche Telekom AG, Telefonica SA and Vodafone Group Plc have used Huawei’s equipment for years and they’re about to spend billions of dollars on building fifth-generation wireless networks. So at MWC Barcelona, phone executives are trying to speak with one voice, warning that they need access to several suppliers and that banning Huawei risks delaying 5G in the region.

Vodafone Chief Executive Officer Nick Read, speaking on stage Monday, said carriers need “a degree of choice” when buying equipment. In an interview, Orange SA’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer and Deputy CEO Mari-Noelle Jego-Laveissiere said that any ban on the Chinese company’s equipment would be “damaging” for the region.

It isn’t clear how much of an impact the U.S. delegation is having. Vodafone’s Read said Monday he had no meeting planned with U.S. officials on Huawei and would rather talk to national regulators if needed. Deutsche Telekom Board Member Claudia Nemat said she hadn’t been approached by the U.S. for meetings.

Huawei Trolls U.S. on Spy Claims With a Jab at Snowden

For the State Department’s Strayer, the choice facing Europe’s carriers is easy.

“There are plenty of options in the West that don’t have these types of risks," he said, citing Cisco Systems Inc., Ericsson AB, Nokia Oyj and Samsung Electronics Co. “Do you want to have a system that’s potentially compromised by the Chinese government, or would you rather go with the more secure alternative?”

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