An Edinburgh-based company engaged in an innovative wave-energy project was the target of a mysterious break-in in 2011. Stolen from its office were laptops containing details of a prototype named Pelamis.
The break-in took place two months after a visit to the company by a 60-strong delegation led by China’s then vice-premier. It was not an opportunistic theft. Burglars scaled a perimeter fence, broke through the front door and went straight to the Pelamis office. Four years later a near-perfect copy of Pelamis called Hailong (Dragon) 1 appeared in the South China Sea.
I investigated this in 2016 while defence and intelligence correspondent for the Guardian, after a whistleblower got in touch through encrypted chat. Although the Chinese government denied any involvement, it has form where the theft of industrial secrets is concerned. Reports have piled up of Chinese covert operations, from crude break-ins to sophisticated hacking, targeting industrial, military and state secrets.
So it is no surprise the US and UK intelligence agencies express unease over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. The US argues it is madness to allow a Chinese company to build 5G broadband networks around the world, including in the UK.
Part of the US motivation is economic: Huawei is winning bids from US tech rivals. But the UK intelligence agencies share worries about letting Huawei in. The government is divided, as demonstrated by the leak from the National Security Council (NSC) that resulted in the sacking of defence secretary Gavin Williamson. While the NSC backed allowing Huwaei limited access, several cabinet ministers—including Williamson—were opposed.
Yet there is a missing chunk in the debate so far over Huawei. The US and UK intelligence agencies give a vague impression that spying is one-way traffic—as if leaks by the US National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden in 2013 never happened. In truth, these showed that the UK and US are as guilty of spying as anyone.
Huawei has not forgotten. Snowden was cited in April this year by the firm’s chief security officer, John Suffolk, in response to criticism from the US that Huawei poses a security threat. “Snowden revealed all kind of things going on with American technology,” he said. “No one has revealed anything that we do [is bad].”
Suffolk—who was once the UK government’s chief IT…