Huawei Head Headquarters in Lusaka

Employees embedded with cybersecurity forces in Zambia and Uganda intercepted encrypted communications and used cell data to track opponents, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation

Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s largest telecommunications company, dominates African markets, where it has sold security tools that governments use for digital surveillance and censorship.

But Huawei employees have provided other services, not disclosed publicly.

Technicians from the Chinese powerhouse have, in at least two cases, personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media, and using cell data to track their whereabouts, according to senior security officials working directly with the Huawei employees in these countries.

In Zambia, according to senior security officials there, Huawei technicians helped the government access the phones and Facebookpages of a team of opposition bloggers running a pro-opposition news site, which had repeatedly criticized President Edgar Lungu.

The senior security officials identified by name two Huawei experts based in a cyber-surveillance unit in ZICTA offices who pinpointed the bloggers’ locations and were in constant contact with police units deployed to arrest them in Solwezi.

The ruling Patriotic Front posted on its Facebook page in April that police officers working with “Chinese experts at Huawei have managed to track” and arrest the bloggers.

The party’s spokesman confirmed to the Journal that the case was handled by the Cybercrime Crack Squad, the unit at ZICTA.

The revelations focus attention on the surveillance systems Huawei sells governments, often branded “safe cities.”

The company says it has installed the systems in 700 cities spread across more than 100 countries and regions.

In Zambia, Huawei’s products are part of the country’s Smart Zambia initiative to implement digital technologies across government departments.

Huawei, in the statement, said it had never sold safe city solutions in Zambia and hasn’t conducted business with Zambia’s Cybercrime Crack Squad.

In Kampala, Uganda, last year, a group of six intelligence officers struggled to contain a threat to the 33-year regime of President Yoweri Museveni, according to Ugandan senior security officials. A pop star turned political sensation, Bobi Wine, had returned from Washington with U.S. backing for his opposition movement, and Uganda’s cyber-surveillance unit had strict orders to intercept his encrypted communications, using the broad powers of a 2010 law that gives the government the ability “to secure its multidimensional interests.”

According to these officials, the team, based on the third floor of the capital’s police headquarters, spent days trying to penetrate Mr. Wine’s WhatsApp and Skype communications using spyware, but failed. Then they asked for help from the staff working in their offices from Huawei, Uganda’s top digital supplier.

“The Huawei technicians worked for two days and helped us puncture through,” said one senior officer at the surveillance unit. The Huawei engineers, identified by name in internal police documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, used the spyware to penetrate Mr. Wine’s WhatsApp chat group, named Firebase crew after his band. Authorities scuppered his plans to organize street rallies and arrested the politician and dozens of his supporters.

The incident in Uganda and another in Zambia, as detailed in a Journal investigation, show how Huawei employees have used the company’s technology and other companies’ products to support the domestic spying of those governments.

Since 2012 the U.S. government has accused Huawei—the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and second-largest manufacturer of smartphones—of being a potential tool for the Chinese government to spy abroad, after decades of alleged corporate espionage by state-backed Chinese actors. Huawei has forcefully denied those charges.

The Journal investigation didn’t turn up evidence of spying by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa. Nor did it find that Huawei executives in China knew of, directed or approved the activities described. It also didn’t find that there was something particular about the technology in Huawei’s network that made such activities possible.

Details of the operations, however, offer evidence that Huawei employees played a direct role in government efforts to intercept the private communications of opponents.

Huawei has “never been engaged in ‘hacking’ activities,” said a Huawei spokesman in a written statement. “Huawei rejects completely these unfounded and inaccurate allegations against our business operations. Our internal investigation shows clearly that Huawei and its employees have not been engaged in any of the activities alleged. We have neither the contracts, nor the capabilities, to do so.”

The spokesman added: “Huawei’s code of business conduct prohibits any employees from undertaking any activities that would compromise our customers or end users data or privacy or that would breach any laws.

Huawei prides itself on its compliance with local regulations and laws in all markets where it operates.”

Zambia’s ruling party spokesman, Antonio Mwanza, said Huawei technicians, based inside ZICTA were helping the government combat opposition news sites.

“Whenever we want to track down perpetrators of fake news, we ask Zicta, which is the lead agency. They work with Huawei to ensure that people don’t use our telecommunications space to spread fake news,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said in a written statement that it is common practice for countries to cooperate on policing.

“Some African countries have enthusiastically built ‘safe cities’ in order to improve the lives of their people and their business environments,” the ministry said.

“To equate this positive effort with ‘surveillance’ smacks of ulterior motives.”

Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, publicly denied in January that the company spied on behalf of the Chinese government.

It was the launch of a global public-relations blitz to counter negative press sparked by the arrest in Canada of Huawei’s CFO and a Trump administration pressure campaign to persuade allies to ban Huawei gear from next-generation 5G networks.

“Neither Huawei, nor I personally, have ever received any requests from any government to provide improper information,” Mr. Ren said at a gathering of foreign journalists.

Zambian senior security officials said that in the country’s new $75 million data center, Huawei employees work with the Cybercrime Crack Squad, sitting in cubicles where they monitor and intercept digital communications from a broad spectrum that includes criminal suspects, as well as opposition groups, activists and journalists.

In Uganda’s capital, Huawei has helped build 11 monitoring centers used to fight crime, according to the national police deputy spokeswoman.

A new six-story, $30 million hub due to open in November will be linked to more than 5,000 of the company’s cameras equipped with facial-recognition technology.

Huawei, in the statement, said it had never sold safe city solutions in Algeria.

Before the Huawei project got rolling, in early 2017, Uganda’s security services received a delivery of spyware, according to Ugandan senior security officials.

The spyware was modeled on a product called Pegasus, created by Israeli firm NSO Group.

Similar products are sold under different names by a number of cyber-intelligence firms.

The spyware can penetrate encrypted messages in smartphones, according to Amnesty International.

The Ugandans received training from five Israeli government technicians. Ugandan intelligence officers said they were taught how to use the spyware for reading emails and texts but not encrypted communications.

The Israeli government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“The training was short-lived and not very sophisticated like what we got from the Chinese,” one senior Ugandan security official said.

A similar story unfolded in Zambia.

The first phase of the project, worth $440 million and mostly financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, began in 2015 after President Edgar Lungu traveled to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping.

Since 2016, Huawei has led the construction of an information and communication technologies training hub and hundreds of cellphone and data connection towers.

Huawei has also established a data center complex at Zicta, the telecom regulator, said Brian Mushimba, Zambia’s minister of transport and communications, in a telephone interview with the Journal.

On the second floor of Zicta’s gray-colored facility, behind biometric scanners, Huawei employees are embedded within Zambia’s new data center, which houses the Cybercrime Crack Squad, Zambian security officials said.

Established in February, around half of the 40-strong staff at the data center are Huawei employees, two Zambian officials there said.

In April, President Lungu’s office ordered a crackdown on news sites that had published a string of damaging stories.

Zambia was for decades seen as one of Africa’s most stable and permissive democracies, but in recent years it has moved to muzzle opposition media, shuttering some of the country’s top newspapers and television channels and pushing antigovernment voices onto Facebook sites and WhatsApp forums.

Mr. Lungu’s press secretary, Amos Chanda, called the head of the cyber squad, Mofya Chisala, and a senior chief Huawei technician for help, Zambian intelligence officers said.

Mr. Chanda said he had “no recollection of the events or meetings” with the cyber squad or Huawei officials.

Mr. Chisala didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Huawei technicians helped intercept the communications of opposition bloggers running a news site named Koswe, or “The Rat,” which had repeatedly criticized Mr. Lungu, the two Zambian officials in the Cybercrime Crack Squad said.

The Huawei staff accessed the bloggers’ Facebook pages, where they found their phone numbers, and then used spyware from another company to look into and locate the devices.

On April 18, a team of cyber officials, police intelligence and Zicta experts huddled in Mr. Chanda’s office, on the ground floor of the presidential mansion.

Two Huawei technicians opened their laptops to display screens showing live trace routes of several mobile phones linked to the targeted bloggers’ Facebook pages, on maps that also charted Huawei phone antennas, Zambian intelligence officials said.

The cyber squad alerted the police in the northwestern provinces where Huawei had pinpointed the opposition bloggers.

Over the next few days, Huawei experts helped Zambian officials track the targets from the Zicta data center offices, maintaining real-time contact with police officers in the field, the intelligence officials said.

Finally, police swooped in on sites on the outskirts of the copper mining town Solwezi.

One suspect was typing on his laptop when officers burst in and seized his electronic devices.

“We found one of the suspects editing a long, malicious article which he was about to post,” one of the intelligence officials said.

One official on the cyber squad said the Zambians have “nowhere near the expertise” of Huawei.

Wall Street Journal

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37 COMMENTS

  1. I always tell you that zicta knows all those that post insults daily.You dont even need Huawei. The zicta equipment is adequate.

    . . The software does everything as long as your phone in registered its very easy to triangulate and locate you.

    Now imagine someone at state house with emotional instability.

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    • What saddens me is that the number one targets are political opponents and journalists and not criminals stealing Zambia’s wealth and raiding bank ATMs. Where’s ZICTA’s hand in bringing such people to justice? This explains Lungu’s arrogance at political rallies and his warning to ConCourt judges at Solwezi Airport. He must have had advance information.

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    • Mukose ba Zambia. Your country is headed the route of a country i wont mention. Very soon you will have a dictator in office and an inflation of one million. You will need a wheelburrow of kwacha to buy bread. I hope you are ready. You allowed a monster to be created. Now you must live with it. You children and their children will suffer for your folly.

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    • Handle with care. Information can be used against you. I am just skeptical about the balance of powers between the zicta and huawei technicians because one is a user and one a manufacturer of the equipment. Are our self interests as a Country secured? Because whatever is on that infrastructure the manufacturer probably has it. Anyway these are always contetious issues with extremely thin constraints. May the powers that be execute ethically. I mentioned ethics because that is what matters when you are dealing with we the powerless. Nation above person, we are all fighting for our great nation.

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    • So ZICTA knows who Jay Jay actually is? They know Nostradamus and Eez. They even know me these bustads!

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    • As I always stated even the new registration has everything to do with this…I mean all Zamtel servers are Chinese and the server rooms restricted to everyone but Chinks

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    • Imagine what will happen during elections. China is happy to have a corrupt government in power as it is easy to steal resources.

      If bloggers take care not to put personal details they can not be tracked by ZICTA and Huawei. Use VPNs if necessary.

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    • This can only happen when Chinese are around in this instance.
      But this exercise is extremely unfortunate. Unfortunate as it is, social media is here to stay. Whether you know people who criticize you or not, social media ni social media. There is no privacy in Cyberspace.
      We shall continue to air our voices whether big brother is eavesdropping and listening into our conversations or not.
      Let social media in Zambia be like the American than the Chinese one.
      This is the only perspective I have a thing or two against Chinese presence.
      But all you dumb aszes, who told you that you’re cool or safe on social media? Americans are even worse.
      Today it ECL eavesdropping tomorrow it will be the next Government. Trouble is when Governments begins to take it personal against maligners…

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    • This is expected from a corrupt coward thuggish character like Lungu. He knows that he’s incompetent and the only way to cling to power and feign legitimacy is by bulling his critics. He knows he’s extremely incompetent and the only way to cover that is by silencing his critics. Competent effective leaders don’t need all that. But his time will come. Once he loses the election in 2021, he’ll need to be arrested and imprisoned for all this illegal spying on patriotic Zambians, and for his immense corruption. And it’s funny that the other coward using this service is his mentor, the brutal dictator, Museveni. Indeed thugs of the same feather flock together. What a shame.

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    • Insecurity is leading us into dictatorship. This government must go (2021 kuya bebele). Spying on citizens is a crime against humanity.

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  2. I’m not surprised by this. Zambia has diplomatic missions in New York and Washington and I would like to believe that they have seen this WSJ report. If their postings in both cities are intended to make Zambia’s voice to be heard, they know how to react to this report.

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    • Bob Marley – Chimabwe lyrics
      Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny
      And in this judgment there is no partiality
      So arm in arms, with arms
      We’ll fight this little struggle
      ‘Cause that’s the only way
      We can overcome our little trouble
      Brother you’re right, you’re right,
      You’re right, you’re right, you’re so right
      We gon’ fight (We gon’ fight)
      We’ll have to fight (We gon’ fight)
      We gonna fight (We gon’ fight)
      Fight for our rights!
      Natty dread it in-a (Zimbabwe)
      Set it up in (Zimbabwe)
      Mash it up-a in-a Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe)
      Africans a-liberate (Zimbabwe)
      No more internal power struggle
      We come together to overcome the little trouble
      Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary
      ‘Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary
      And brother you’re…

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  3. Your phone number . You’re email address. Your facebook account. This data is the cyber space and you cant hide even if you use stage names.

    Phone registration was the worst thing ever.

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    • Lolest.
      Let’s roll.
      We’re gonna blog whether big brother likes it or not.
      Why waste energy and resources tracing who is who?
      Do you remember Dora Siliya’s comments about jobs and youths vis social media comments and articles? “Government wants to use Social Media Profiles to Scrutinize Future Job Applicants” a story carried by LT on 13th June, 2019. Saw that?
      This story is hiper true.
      I knew about this the very moment I became a blogger. I also know who the f-word is who.
      Government should concentrate on development. LT the blogspot concentrate on publishing stories and we are gonna air our view regardless.

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  4. “The Huawei technicians worked for two days and helped us puncture through,” said one(Ugandan) senior officer at the Surveillance Unit.

    Interesting,WhatsApp has been boasting of its protective feature of end-to-end data encryption which China men punctured through.When it comes to reverse engineering,Chinese are at another level.Thats explains the animosity by Donald Trump towards Huawei.

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    • Has he ever committed treason? Or he just shows support for his political fraternity? Stop threatening people my friend. You should separate the person from his political associations, that’s how we maintain respect and show humanity to each other. People’s choices and values differ based our various backgrounds. Zambia chalo chesu bonse.

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    • You can criticize hh without necessarily insulting him. And you can criticize lungu without insults

      The ONLY difference is that lungu is a the president of republic of Zambia and defamation of a president is a crime under laws of Zambia.

      Dear comrades. Let us sober up.

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    • But you see we are a democracy and freedom of speech comes with the territory. The law should not be used to instill fear bane but to maintain order. Now you will use the law to stiffle people? tefyochilingila ukuba bane. We have lived in harmony for 55 years why start raising a dark cloud upon the Country now? Naba lawmaker balafwa, be humble. Absolute power corrupts absolutely kushupika nokulala ubushiku. Fyamuchalo fye ifi let’s not start dehumanizing one another.

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    • Silly threats.
      Why would a leader spend his time and energy tracking down those that insult him, when the economy around him is collapsing? When his government is full of corruption. Mr. “ZAMBIA FIRST” please dont try to scare anyone. If you trully put ZAMBIA first you would be speaking against the theft and corruption that has charactorised PF.
      I agree there is no need to insult anyone. But critising we wont stop, no matter how many threats you issue. See you in 2021.

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    • Zambia First, shut your mouth, you coward. You and corrupt Lungu will go to prison one day.

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  5. Last year Citizen Lab also detected the presence of Pegasus Malware in the Zambian network, especially with ASN36962 network. An operator called as MULUNGUSHI was identified in Zambia from February 2018 and is been operational to present gathering data and information targeting political agents. Pegasus is an Israeli malware mostly used and installed by governments.

    ***

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  6. How dull can this government be sure. Instead, train your very own cyber spys. Just incase you don’t know the very Chinese will spy on you and get rid of you when u r no longer valuable. Nowadays its all about Cyberwar. The Chinese sent students to the USA to learn CISCO and other Cyber internet things. When the very Chinese graduated and returned home, They came up with the same mechanisms and tactics similar to CISCO now Incorporated in what is known today as Huawei. ZAMBIAN GOVERNMENT wake up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  7. Under hh things maybe. And am saying maybe worse.

    You wil be followed up accordingly. Very easy to trace you.

    What happened to tayali. His jacket was ripped right in front of hh. And online cadres supported

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  8. Be careful bane.i smell a rat,a big RAT.Americans are fighting Huawei and Huawei seems smarter than them with advances in 5G.They now want to bring this confusion to Africa!If you are law abiding why should you worry?

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  9. The game of power and illusory control must be fun, shout out to all the shu shu shu’s living their best life. technology is caming for your jobs.

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  10. The only fact is that they can try whatever tricks but when the time to go comes, they will go. Even Nyama Soya brought that equipment at the Red Brick which ShuShuShu use to monitor our phones within a radius of 300km but he’s out just like we told him. The only sure security for any leader is good governance and justice for all, especially the downtrodden. You can arrest or assassinate all opposition leaders but you’ll also have your day when your time is up. You can even change the Constitution every 4 years like Fonkofonko used to disqualify opponents, you’ll still go when your time is up. This the lesson which African politicians fail to learn.

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  11. Every dog has its own day, before them was the mighty UNIP & MMD.
    Zicta cannot suppress the human spirit.

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  12. Imwe tu UPND you are too behind in everything and in this technological age you can honestly doubt the ability for one to be tracked? Just for your info, you can be tracked even in your own bedroom, thats why countries with superior communication tools are in control of everything, so be careful and dont just insult because your are bare and can be fished our from anywhere.

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