Huawei denies spying on Dutch PM

Written by Sam Trendall on 20 April 2021 in News

Leaked report suggests Chinese tech firm had access to calls made by large swathes of the population of the Netherlands

Credit: Da Sal/CC BY 2.0

Huawei has denied eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of the Dutch prime minister, after reports that the firm was able to listen in to all calls made on one the largest telephone networks in the Netherlands.

Former state-owned telco KPN has about 6.5 million Dutch users of its fixed and mobile networks – equating to more than one in three of the national population. Customers reportedly include former prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, during his time in office.

This tenure included the creation of a 2010 report – undertaken by consultancy Capgemini on behalf of KPN – which found that the use of Huawei’s kit in the Dutch company’s network meant that the Chinese firm was able to monitor and access all user calls. The report was never made public, but journalists at newspaper De Volksrant have now seen – and published – some of its key findings.

The study was reportedly commissioned on the advice of Dutch intelligence services, which had expressed concerns about possible spying.

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In addition to the possibility of listening in on the PM’s conversations, De Volksrant claims that the report also flagged up the potential of accessing calls made by Chinese dissidents living in the Netherlands, as well as monitoring which numbers were being tapped by security services.

While acknowledging the report’s existence, KPN said that “in all years, we have never observed that Huawei took client information”.

The chief operating officer of Huawei Netherlands Gert-Jan van Eck completely denied that the vendor had the ability to listen to the PM’s phone calls.

“The allegation that the prime minister could be overheard by us is completely untrue and an underestimation of the security of the interception environment,” he said. "It just isn’t possible."

The UK government has decreed that telecoms firms have until 2027 to strip all Huawei kit out of this country’s 5G network. A ban on buying any new equipment from the Chinese firm came into force earlier this year.

Under laws proposed in November, network providers that continue to use Huawei kit beyond the point at which it becomes prohibited to do so could be fined up to £100,000 for each day they are in breach.

This tough stance is a marked turnaround from the initial decision made by prime minister Boris Johnson in January 2020 that Huawei would be allowed to contribute to the next-generation network. The government originally decreed that the vendor could contribute up to 35% of the kit that comprises the “periphery” of the network.

But, within six months, this decision had been reversed, with the PM instead announcing Huawei would be totally expunged from the UK’s 5G infrastructure.


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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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