Government intelligence agencies in the United States have held firm that Huawei's products present a security risk and could be used as conduits of sensitive information to China. Huawei has repeatedly denied the claims, but is there any truth to it? Well, as an interesting twist to the situation, it's being reported that a major telecom had previously found "hidden backdoors" on Huawei's networking equipment.
In security parlance, a backdoor is a means of bypassing authentication or encryption in a product or service. Technically, it is not the same thing as a vulnerability (usually), but can have the same consequences. That is the reason why Apple refused to build a backdoor into iOS for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) when it wanted help in cracking the security of an iPhone model that belonged one of the San Bernardino shooters.
According to Bloomberg, documents reveal that Vodafone, the largest telecom in Europe, discovered backdoors in Huawei's routers from 2009 to 2011. As the report goes, Vodafone asked Huawei to remove the backdoors in its home internet routers in 2011, and Huawei said it would. However, further testing revealed that they remained.
Vodafone is also said to have found secret backdoors in Huawei's fixed-access network (optical service nodes), which carries internet traffic over optical fibers. This kind of traffic includes user authentications.
According to Vodafone, the backdoors affected products in Italy, and have since been resolved, though it's not clear exactly when it happened. In a statement on the subject, Vodafone also seems to insinuate that nothing nefarious was going on.
"In the telecoms industry it is not uncommon for vulnerabilities in equipment from suppliers to be identified by operators and other third parties," the company said. "Vodafone takes security extremely seriously and that is why we independently test the equipment we deploy to detect whether any such vulnerabilities exist. If a vulnerability exists, Vodafone works with that supplier to resolve it quickly."
The revelation that some of Huawei's previous products contained backdoors may serve as a vindication of sorts to US intelligence agencies. Huawei contends that government officials are merely trying to thwart Huawei's lead in 5G technology, but whether nefarious or not, this is not a good look for Huawei.
Interestingly, Vodafone does not necessarily share the same concerns as the US government. Vodafone has opposed bans on Huawei's 5G products and services, though the telecom also has a vested interest in the situation.