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