INSIGHTS | April 30, 2013

Fact or Fiction: Is Huawei a Risk to Critical Infrastructure?

How much of a risk does a company like Huawei or ZTE pose to U.S. national security? It’s a question that’s been on many peoples lips for a good year now. Last year the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence warned American companies to “use another vendor”, and earlier in that year the French senator and former defense secretary Jean-Marie Bockel recommended a “total prohibition in Europe of core routers and other sensitive IT equipment coming from China.” In parallel discussions, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand (to name a few) have restricted how Huawei operates within their borders.
Last week Eric Xu – executive vice-president and one of the triumvirate jointly running Huawei – stunned analysts when he told them that Huawei was “not interested in the U.S. market any more.”
Much of the analysis has previously focused upon Huawei’s sizable and influential position as the world’s second largest manufacturer of network routers and switching technology – a critical ingredient for making the Internet and modern telecommunications work – and the fact that it is unclear as to how much influence (or penetration) the Chinese government has in the company and its products. The fear is that at any point now or in the future, Chinese military leaders could intercept or disrupt critical telecommunications infrastructure – either as a means of aggressive statecraft or as a component of cyber warfare.
As someone who’s spent many years working with the majority of the world’s largest telecommunication companies, ISP’s, and cable providers, I’ve been able to observe firsthand the pressure being placed upon these critical infrastructure organizations to seek alternative vendors and/or replace any existing Huawei equipment they may already have deployed. In response, many of the senior technical management and engineers at these organizations have reached out to me and to IOActive to find out how true these rumors are. I use the term “rumor” because, while reports have been published by various government agencies, they’re woefully lacking in technical details. You may have also seen François Quentin (chairman of the board of Huawei France) claiming that the company is a victim of “rumors”.
In the public technical arena, there are relatively few bugs and vulnerabilities being disclosed in Huawei equipment. For example, if you search for CVE indexed vulnerabilities you’ll uncover very few. Compared to the likes of Cisco, Juniper, Nokia, and most of the other major players in routing and switching technology, the number of public disclosures is miniscule. But this is likely due to a few of the following reasons:
  • The important Huawei equipment isn’t generally the kind of stuff that security researchers can purchase off Ebay and poke around with at home for a few hours in a quest to uncover new bugs. They’re generally big-ticket items. (This is the same reason why you’ll see very few bugs publicly disclosed in Cisco’s or Nokia’s big ISP-level routers and switches).
  • Up until recently, despite Huawei being such a big player internationally, they haven’t been perceived as such to the English-speaking security researcher community – so have traditionally garnered little interest from bug hunters.
  • Most of the time when bugs are found and exploitable vulnerabilities are discovered, they occur during a paid-for penetration test or security assessment, and therefore those findings belong to the organization that commissioned the consulting work – and are unlikely to be publicly disclosed.
  • Remotely exploitable vulnerabilities that are found in Huawei equipment by independent security researchers are extremely valuable to various (international) government agencies. Any vulnerability that could allow someone to penetrate or eavesdrop at an international telecommunications carrier-level is worth big bucks and will be quickly gobbled up. And of course any vulnerability sold to such a government agency most certainly isn’t going to be disclosed to the vulnerable vendor – whether that be Huawei, Cisco, Juniper, Nokia, or whatever.


What does IOActive know of bugs and exploitable vulnerabilities within Huawei’s range of equipment? Quite a bit obviously – since we’ve been working to secure many of the telecommunications companies around the world that have Huawei’s top-end equipment deployed. It’s obviously not for me to disclose vulnerabilities that were uncovered on the dime of an IOActive client, however many of the vulnerabilities we’ve uncovered during tests have given great pause to our clients as remedies are sought.
Interesting enough, the majority of those vulnerabilities were encountered using standard network discovery techniques – which to my mind is just scratching the surface of things. However, based upon what’s been disclosed in these afore mentioned government reports over the last year, that was probably their level of scrutinization too. Digging deeper in to the systems reveals more interesting security woes.
Given IOActive’s expertise history and proven capability of hardware hacking, I’m certain that we’d be able to uncover a whole host of different and more significant security weaknesses in these critical infrastructure components for clients that needed that level of work done. To date IOActive the focus has be on in-situ analysis – typically assessing the security and integrity of core infrastructure components within live telco environments.
I’ve heard several senior folks talk of their fears that even with full access to the source code that that wouldn’t be enough to verify the integrity of Chinese network infrastructure devices. For a skillful opponent, that is probably so, because they could simply hide the backdoors and secret keys in the microcode of the devices semiconductor chips.
Unfortunately for organizations that think they can hide such critical flaws or backdoors at the silicon layer, I’ve got a surprise for you. IOActive already has the capability strip away the layers of logic within even the most advanced and secure microprocessor technologies out there and recover the code and secrets that have been embedded within the silicon itself.
So, I’d offer a challenge out there to the various critical infrastructure providers, government agencies, and to manufacturers such as Huawei themselves – let IOActive sort out the facts from the multitude of rumors. Everything you’ve probably been reading is hearsay.
Who else but IOActive can assess the security and integrity of a technology down through the layers – from the application, to the drivers, to the OS, to the firmware, to the hardware and finally down to the silicon of the microprocessors themselves? Exciting times!
— Gunter Ollmann, CTO IOActive Inc.