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Huawei employees helped African governments spy on opponents: WSJ

Huawei employees helped African governments spy on opponents: WSJ

Ren Zhengfei, founder and chief executive officer of Huawei Technologies, left, speaks during an interview at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China, in January.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Huawei employees helped African governments spy on political opponents by using cell data to track their location and intercepting encrypted communications and social media, a Wall Street Journal investigation found.

The report, which did not find evidence that Huawei executives in China were aware of or approved the activities in Africa, could still add ammunition to the U.S. government’s allegations that Huawei could be used for espionage on behalf of the Chinese government. Huawei has denied these claims, but the U.S. has remained wary of the smartphone maker, with the Department of Justice filing criminal charges in two separate cases in January, alleging its CFO committed wire fraud and violated U.S. sanctions on Iran and that the company stole trade secrets from T-Mobile.

The WSJ investigation did not find evidence of spying activity by or on behalf of the Chinese government in Africa. It also did not find any unique features in Huawei’s technology that allowed spying activity to occur.

In two separate cases in Uganda and Zambia, the Journal found that Huawei employees used its technology to aid domestic spying on behalf of governments in those countries. Huawei technicians working in Uganda’s police headquarters office used Pegasus spyware made by Israei company NSO Group to crack into the encrypted messages of a rapper-turned-activist named Bobi Wine, the Journal investigation found. A cyber team based at the Ugandan police headquarters asked the Huawei technicians for help after failing to access the encrypted messages using the spyware, security officials told the Journal.

Pegasus spyware is now being sold by a number of cyper-security firms, according to the Journal. NSO Group has previously said it has a process for determining which governments it sells to, with an emphasis on selling to those fighting terrorism or crime. If its spyware is being sold by other firms, it is unclear which companies are selling it, and whether they are making similar determinations.

The NSO Group strongly disputed the idea that its Pegasus software is being used in this way in a statement to CNBC:

“The WSJ article is wrong. And we told them that very clearly when they asked us. We don’t work with Huawei at all. We don’t do business with Uganda, at all. And only NSO sells Pegasus — no one else does.”

Huawei did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment, but a spokesperson told the Journal in a statement that the company has “never been engaged in ‘hacking’ activities.”

“Huawei rejects completely these unfounded and inaccurate allegations against our business operations,” the spokesperson told the Journal. “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.”

Read the full report at The Wall Street Journal.

-CNBC’s Kate Fazzini contributed to this report.

WATCH: Senator Marsha Blackburn explains why she thinks Huawei is a security risk

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