Security and Safety of the Internet

Commentary, Disruption, Eamonn Brosnan

The US government is pressuring Canada to block telecommunications companies from using equipment provided by Huawei, a Chinese company, when building our 5G cellular network for smartphones. Their logic is along the lines of “we don’t have actual evidence that China is using Huawei’s products to spy on us, but we suspect that they have in the past and will in the future”. In a court of law, that wouldn’t be sufficient to be allowed into court, much less get a conviction. But this isn’t a criminal court. This is about National Security and this is about corporate spying. And whether we like to admit it or not, there is a cyber war being waged that is similar to the old Cold War. The treasures we are fighting over? Rare resources in a world that is rapidly being depleted of natural resources, wealth, and political favours and control.

Russia has been suspected of being involved in attacks on targets in a variety of nations (from the Pentagon to Ukrainian power grids) and have become increasingly bolder using this strategy. Just months after taking the Ukrainian power grid down in December of 2015, Russian hackers, from the state-sponsored group known as Dragonfly, seized control of critical computers in the US Power Grid in the Spring of 2016. Based on reports from the utility companies, these hackers had managed to gain sufficient control that they would have been able to shut down portions of the US power grid.

There are hacking groups in China, working for Chinese Intelligence, who have hacked everything from natural resource companies to the Pentagon. It is believed that these groups have directed their activities toward either hacking companies that control access to critical natural resources or high technology equipment, be it civilian or military in nature. The Chinese government maintains firm control over their own companies, government-owned or private, and these companies are required to cooperate with any National Intelligence activities. Huawei, and several other Chinese-based suppliers, have been caught embedding backdoor access in various digital equipment in the past, though it is not known whether these security lapses were intentional or left-over access for testing that had been forgotten and not removed before releasing them to production. Either it was intentional or it was sloppy. Definitely not secure.

In truth, the US has been doing all of these things as well. Many US-based hardware and software suppliers have NSA-directed backdoors installed. This had been heavily documented by Edward Snowden. This NSA program, Prism, has been alleged to be used to intercept all manner of communications and there have been some serious concerns about how much this is being used domestically, without warrants and without judicial oversight. Back in 2010 a malicious worm (which is a type of malware that sends copies of itself out to infect other machines that are connected to the infected machine by a network) called the Stuxnet Worm attacked and destroyed a number of centrifuge machines being used by the Iranians in their nuclear weapons program. The worm was seemingly crafted carefully to target these specific machines and the suspicion has always been that it was produced by a joint operation by American and Israeli intelligence. It set the Iranian nuclear weapons program back for a while due to the loss of the centrifuges.

The point I am making is that this isn’t about ethics or moral outrage. Depending upon where you live, you might agree with some of these cybernetic attacks and feel outraged at others. However, we don’t need to determine who is right or wrong, this is simply about being pragmatic. China, though a trade partner, is also a competitor that seeks every advantage when dealing with us. They have been shown to be engaged in corporate espionage as well as being involved in stealing technology from anyone they can. Chinese-based companies are required, by Chinese law, to help facilitate these operations. It doesn’t need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Huawei will install backdoors for Chinese Intelligence, this isn’t a murder trial. This is National Security and suspicion is all that is needed in the murky world of spies and spec-ops.

If Canada were serious about standing on our own as a national entity, perhaps it would make sense to support our own tech companies. Blackberry is a Canadian-based smartphone maker who, traditionally, has had the best security of any phone maker. Nortel Networks was a major player in network infrastructure before its financial collapse in the early 2000’s. Maybe Canada should take a page out of the playbook used by so many other nations and start supporting and encouraging our own local companies. Companies like these are our only real way to ensure our security and independence from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence operations (be they Russian, Chinese, American, or someone else’s). It is high time that we start putting the interests and security of Canadian citizens, Canadian businesses, and the Canadian Government first and stop worrying about offending a foreign power’s sensibilities.