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India accuses Huawei of hacking into its telecom network

The company strongly denies the allegation, but if it is found to be true, it could cause an upheaval in the world of telecom equipment
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer on

If there's one thing that Indians have become increasingly paranoid about these days, it is the spectre of Chinese companies sneaking in malware and spying technology into telecom equipment and other hardware that they sell to Indians.

So, this neuroses is not going to be helped any by recent news that Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei allegedly hacked state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam’s (BSNL) network. A few days ago the Indian parliament was informed about it and investigations are apparently ongoing. Huawei strongly denies the allegation.

The apparent backstory to the incident was the awarding of a major part of BSNL's network expansion tender of about 10.15 million lines to another Chinese company ZTE in 2012. Huawei was also in the running but decided that it couldn't meet the rock-bottom quote that ZTE had given. Around the same time, a parliamentary committee had urged the government to test the telecom equipment for security since the Chinese had become one of the biggest suppliers of hardware and software to Indian companies.

Considering the extent of corporate rivalry between the two Chinese companies—and Indian impressions of Chinese ill-intent (the two countries did fight a war in 1962 and frequently engage in border skirmishes)—no one in India seems surprised at this news. However, details about the incident are still under wraps with the exception of reports about a mobile tower in the coastal region of the state of Andhra Pradesh being compromised because of hacking by Huawei’s engineers.

Of course, India is not the only one paranoid about covert Chinese digital incursions. In 2012, a committee of US lawmakers warned of cyber espionage via telecom networks built by Chinese companies and suggested that American companies looking to do business with Huawei and ZTE should switch vendors. The charges were vehemently denied by both Chinese companies.

In fact, one of the big reasons for the launching of India’s National Electronics Policy which includes, among other things, the building of a semiconductor Fab was because Indian tech mavens such as Ajai Chowdhry, founder of computer maker HCL Infosystems, were convinced that telecom equipment and other hardware could easily act as Trojan horses for Chinese hackers.

However, since pretty much everything we consume in the digital world today—from telecom equipment to smartphones to TVs are being made in China today, we should all cross our fingers that none of these allegations turn out to be true.

And, in a worst case scenario, even if it is, it's no more than a regrettable incident of corporate one-upmanship.

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