Jim Armitage: Tap into telecoms, and the message is one of skulduggery and snooping

 

It was broadly left to Private Eye to pass a quizzical glance at last week's investment in the UK by the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. The mainstream headlines focused on the 700 jobs being created here rather than the company's somewhat patchy record in persuading other countries to open their doors.

The suspicion in Australia and the US is that Huawei is far too close to the Chinese government. Do we really want to be handing over large swathes of our telecoms infrastructure to an arm of the snooping Chinese government, these countries ask? Whether the Chinese state would stoop so low as to spy on citizens of foreign lands, who knows? Certainly its record on monitoring its own population's communications is hardly unblemished.

Huawei's expansion is a massive story in the US, where its officials were summoned to Capitol Hill recently to prove they weren't all spooks. The politicians – aware of public opinion back in their home states – gave the businessmen a predictably rough ride. As with the select committee hearings in Westminster, you couldn't help feeling they'd kinda' made their own minds up already. In fairness to the pols, Huawei deserves serious scrutiny. It is hardly the most transparent company in the world, and it's not nearly clear enough how much control over it the Politburo really wields.

But before we get too high-minded about whether to trust the Chinese with our phone lines, let's put ourselves on hold for a minute.

One of the biggest human rights scandals in Greece since its return to democracy involved the tapping of more than 100 mobile phones belonging to Greek politicians and senior civil servants in 2004-05. And whose network was involved in that incident? Britain's own Vodafone.

Vodafone is not accused of being complicit in the hacking – in fact, the Greek government blamed the CIA – but one of the company's top executives was discovered dead in an apparent suicide during a badly botched investigation into the affair, and no culprits were ever found.

A similar mysterious fate befell the former head of security at Telecom Italia after it emerged that more than 5,000 Italian journalists, politicians, magistrates and football players had been illegally wire-tapped on its network. Adamo Bove, who discovered the intercepts, died in Naples, falling off a motorway bridge in 2006.

Deutsche Telekom, part-owner of Britain's EverythingEverywhere network, spied on German journalists in 2008 in a scandal that saw its head of security jailed.

But these cases were all fairly localised – unlike that of the Swedish mobiles giant TeliaSonera.

Forget the clichés about Swedes being super-clean paragons of virtue and liberalism. If the widespread rumours and apparent confession by the company are to be believed, TeliaSonera has been colluding with unsavoury regimes right across Eastern Europe. The governments of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan have all allegedly been sold high-tech surveillance kit that they have used to spy on journalists, union leaders and members of political opposition parties.

As one TeliaSonera whistleblower alleged: "There's no limit to how much wire-tapping is done, none at all."

The company is also alleged to have sold the governments equipment they dubbed "black boxes", which enabled police and security services to eavesdrop unrestricted on phone calls, internet traffic, text messages and location data.

Among those allegedly bugged were an Azerbaijani journalist who had written about how he was beaten up by government security agents. Another from the country said he was interrogated solely because he unpatriotically voted for Armenia in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.

Sweden's government, fearing a major political scandal, hauled the company in for a rollocking, and its chief executive sheepishly launched an "action plan" to clean up its operations in non-democratic countries. A spokesman said yesterday the company has to follow the local laws but pointed out that, since the scandal erupted, it has been working with human rights groups to assess the regimes where it operates.

Just how long TeliaSonera's Lars Nyberg stays in as chief executive is unclear, however. This week he had to hold a press conference to fight off a raft of new allegations – this time that his company had bribed its way to winning contracts in Uzbekistan. Mr Nyberg denied the charges and said he would resign if it was proved the company had done wrong.

Meanwhile, one wonders how Aung San Suu Kyi and Co feel about this: TeliaSonera is widely being tipped as a front-runner to win mobile phone licences soon to go up for grabs from Myanmar's military regime.

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