A Liberal MP who in 2015 travelled with now-senior Labor ministers to Huawei’s China HQ felt “distinctly uneasy” over the tech giant’s claims it could secretly monitor the movement of individual citizens on public transport systems.
Three years before Huawei was awarded a $136 million contract to update WA’s aging rail communication systems, the delegation was briefed by senior Huawei executives about its Smart Cities concept.
The delegation — which included now-Transport Minister Rita Saffioti — was left in no doubt about the global giant’s extraordinary technological capacity and its willingness to use it unencumbered.
“Here in WA, law enforcement bodies would have to get something signed by the Attorney-General to access that sort of stuff, but the ability of Huawei had to track people without their knowledge was straight out of Big Brother,” Liberal MP Jim Chown said.
The revelation raises more questions as to why Huawei was awarded the lucrative WA contract — now under review — why the deal was not taken to Cabinet for scrutiny and why the McGowan Government then tried to distance itself from it once it was signed.
Huawei was banned from tendering for the 5G roll-out in 2012 over national security concerns and has since been charged by US authorities with stealing trade secrets, fraud and breaching Iran sanctions.
But last July the McGowan Government awarded Huawei the contract to update data and radio communications on Perth’s rail system after it said it received clearance from national security agencies.
The PTA contract is for 4G, but Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology allows Huawei’s data and communication systems to be updated to 5G. It will cover all of Perth’s rail network, including Metronet’s Forrestfield Airport Link.
Although Huawei’s Australian chairman John Lord has made a spirited defence of the company’s operations, China’s 2017 National Intelligence Laws now make it compulsory for all “organisations and citizens” to “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work”.
Mr Chown was one of five MPs — along with Ms Saffioti, now-Education Minister Sue Ellery, Labor’s Upper House President Kate Doust and Liberal Paul Miles — who went to China on the Huawei-subsidised trip.
Mr Chown said the company gave examples of how it was able to track individuals — without their knowledge — through their mobile’s IMEI number, or International Mobile Equipment Identity, when using transport.
“They told us it was technology that could be used by governments and others to track people from point to point and it was all for planning purposes, to make transport systems more efficient and cities smarter,” Mr Chown said.
“What I had a problem with was it was a major incursion into people’s privacy. It would never be allowed to happen here.
“It was Big Brother stuff. I walked away from it all feeling decidedly uneasy about it all. It was scary, really.”
The other then-Liberal MP on the trip, Paul Miles, told The Sunday Times the party was briefed by the company’s global cyber security chief.
He and other delegates exchanged gifts with their hosts. They received a package that included a mobile phone. All WA delegates have since said they did not use the phones.
Mr Miles said the growing unease over Huawei was a perfect example of how legislation was not keeping pace with technology and governments were struggling to keep up with the pace of change.
But he remains confounded and suspicious about how the matter was handled.
“The thing I don’t understand, is why does Labor seem so secretive about it? Why didn’t they want to take the contract to Cabinet,” he said.
In Ms Saffioti’s delegate report to Parliament in 2015, she outlined the extraordinary reach of Huawei’s technology.
“With respect to the future of telecommunications, we learned that the world is now getting ready for 5G. Unlike the 4G that preceded it, 5G will not be tailored to people — but between ‘thing’ and ‘thing’,” she wrote.