Questions about Chinese company’s spying ability are familiar

PROMIS software in 80’s let Americans spy on allies

The arrest this week of Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who pays attention to international business. Some question marks have surrounded her company, Huawei Technologies, for some time and the questions aren’t new ones or unique to the Asian conglomerate.

Reuters reported this week, “The United States has been looking since at least 2016 into whether Huawei Technologies Ltd. violated U.S. sanctions against Iran. More recently, the probe has included the company’s use of HSBC Holdings Plc to make illegal transactions involving Iran.”

As CEO, Meng is the top dog at Huawei, and she was arrested in Vancouver by police on the request of the U.S. government. The U.S. is investigating Huawei for what amounts to alleged criminal conspiracy to evade international sanctions against Iran. Other Asian businesses have been charged and fined for the same thing; six years ago HSBC was fined almost $2 billion for violating sanctions plus mafia stuff like money laundering.

What’s more interesting, though, are questions surrounding Huawei’s business practices and products. A recent Reuters story about Huawei had the following comment made through social media: “Martin Sparkes I compete with Chinese companies. The government has its finger in every business and the core focus of every Chinese business is to help their country become the global leader in everything. They are ruthless, dishonest and not particularly innovative. Everything they sell is an imitation or outright copy of a product that was developed somewhere else. And I would bet my shirt that those Huawei phones and network equipment are packed with spyware feeding information back to the Chinese government.”

Allegations that a government would sell software with a “back door” intended for espionage aren’t new. The same thing happened in the early to mid 80’s and involved a private company apparently steamrolled by the American government which was allegedly spying on its best friends.

A computer software company called Inslaw developed a program called “PROMIS,” Prosecutors’ Management Information System, which monitored criminals and their information for governments. While partially paid for by tax dollars, it appears one or more parts of the American government felt PROMIS was so effective, they should sell it at a discount or give it away for free to allied governments like Israel and Australia. Although no one seems to know if the American government actually owned rights to the software.

While the question of who owned PROMIS remained in court for 12 years, other questions arose. Apparently, PROMIS had been altered to include a secret “back door” that sent information about its users to the American government and some wondered aloud if this was the real reason PROMIS existed in the first place. Also, if you decide to do any research yourself into what’s called “The Inslaw Affair,” get ready for confusion. It could be one of the most complex scandals in human history.

But it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that governments are willing to spy on even their closest allies, let alone their rivals. Espionage is the world’s second-oldest profession and information is still the world’s most valuable commodity.

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.

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