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Cybersecurity Official On Bridging The Divide Between The U.S. And China


We've been talking with an American who works for Huawei. The Chinese tech company's under pressure by the United States. And we're hearing people with a foot in two worlds as the U.S. and China begin to pull apart. This man oversaw Internet security for the U.S. government, then found himself on the other side as the U.S. called Huawei a potential tool of China.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Check one, two. Check one, two.

INSKEEP: Our producer, Ashley Westerman, brought microphones to a building in Washington, which intrigued the man we'd come to meet.

ANDY PURDY: I'm supposed to do an audio history of the museum, the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas.

INSKEEP: Really?

PURDY: I owe them...

INSKEEP: Andy Purdy, who is trim and bearded, served in several government jobs, including work for a committee that reinvestigated the Kennedy assassination. He was a federal prosecutor. Then he oversaw the government's Internet security after 9/11.

PURDY: Yeah. I wouldn't call it a czar position, but, yeah, I was the lead cybersecurity official for the U.S. government.

INSKEEP: Later, this former cybersecurity official received an offer from Huawei. It's headquartered in Shenzhen, China's version of Silicon Valley.

Did you have a moment of thinking, should I be doing this?

PURDY: Well, I was recruited by John Suffolk, who's our global lead for cyber and privacy.

INSKEEP: John Suffolk once had a top Internet security job for the U.K. He went to work for Huawei, so Purdy did.

PURDY: And some people say, well, Andy, you're just a defender of Huawei or a defender of China. No, I'm a defender of the fact that we have to manage risk. We have to be serious so that we as a society and a people - we can take advantage of the technologies in a way that's secure.

INSKEEP: When Purdy took the job at Huawei in 2012, some Western governments worried about buying communications equipment from a supplier in China, but they were letting Huawei sell. Even the U.S. did. Depending on where you live, a call you make today might pass through Huawei equipment. Security concerns seemed manageable until the Trump administration.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The United States has also been very clear with our security partners on the threat posed by Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies.

INSKEEP: Vice President Mike Pence spoke this year at a security forum in Europe. The U.S. wants to keep Huawei out of all the countries it can. We glimpsed what's at stake when we visited China and toured a construction project. It was a Beijing office building, a cylinder of black glass.


With an atrium reaching to the roof.

So the atrium is the height of the entire 200-meter building. Whatever that large thing is that fell, that echo, that's - gives you a sense of the space.

On an office floor, we saw a white plastic box overhead. It will relay wireless data as part of the fifth-generation Internet - or 5G.

So this box and this box - these are base stations built into the ceiling for 5G connectivity for whatever firm moves into this floor under construction.

That white box will soon be out of sight, covered by ceiling tiles. But without it, this would hardly be a modern building at all. Other 5G base stations will be inside every office in the skyscraper and in buildings around the world, not to mention subways and roadways. They will carry 5G signals not just to phones but to self-driving vehicles, appliances and more. To Vice President Pence, boxes made by Huawei are potential arms of China's government.


PENCE: As Chinese law requires them to provide Beijing's vast security apparatus with access to any data that touches their network or equipment.

INSKEEP: Suddenly, Andy Purdy, representing Huawei in Washington, has found his employer described like an enemy.

Has it been personally hard for you the last couple of years to be working as an American for this company that has been pushed upon by the United States in this way?

PURDY: Well, it helps that the friends that I've maintained - and I've lost a few friends that are in government and former government people.

INSKEEP: One friend he's lost in Washington used to coach Purdy's daughter on a basketball team.

PURDY: He refused to have contacts with me anymore.

INSKEEP: Purdy is trying to find out who will listen as he argues that any risk of the Chinese government using Huawei can be contained.

PURDY: We'd just like the opportunity to talk with the government about those proven risk mitigation mechanism.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in the way you're saying that. You say you'd like the opportunity. We're blocks from the White House. I presume that you and other people at Huawei have asked for a meeting. Are you not getting that meeting?

PURDY: We have not been granted the meetings with the appropriate folks in government that we've requested. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that is?

PURDY: Well, there's a geopolitic (ph) overlay over the whole situation with the trade talks. And so the kinds of experts in government who would normally talk with us about these kinds of things - they don't want to stick their nose above the firing line to have those kinds of discussions.

INSKEEP: Purdy argues that Western telecom firms can gain from buying Huawei equipment that is innovative and cheap.

PURDY: Despite where we're headquartered, we can bring huge benefit to America.

INSKEEP: But there really is a law that says that Chinese organizations and individuals must cooperate with intelligence-gathering activities, and, in fact, they'll be protected if they do.

PURDY: Our experts say that that's not what the law says. And in fact, the U.S. government recently has admitted that they don't believe the law has any relevance whatsoever...

INSKEEP: Although...

PURDY: ...Because they believe that a Chinese-based company would have to do whatever the China government says, regardless of a law.

INSKEEP: Well, yeah. I mean, there's two things there. One is I know that your lawyers have argued that China's constitution provides some protections for that, but you just alluded to the other argument - in China, maybe it doesn't matter what the law is. The government is very powerful, and they will ask for what they ask for.

PURDY: That's the U.S. government position.

INSKEEP: Purdy doesn't really dispute the U.S. objection. China's authoritarian government may well ask a company for help. Instead, he hopes to show that Huawei could not help China even if asked. Networks can be built so they're harder to penetrate. And after Huawei sells hardware to telecom firms, Huawei has no free access to that equipment or to the data passing through.

PURDY: The general principle is if we don't have the data, nobody can force us to turn it over. That's the fundamental concept.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another risk that is raised by some experts, which is the notion that there might be some way in Huawei equipment to just shut it off and that, if told, Huawei could disrupt a network or shut down a network.

PURDY: We believe that risk mitigation measures need to be in place to help make sure that the carriers and operators are not subject to being shut down. So for example, the operators, they can say - and most would - they would segment the network so that if there's a successful penetration, the potential consequences, the potential shutdown would be very, very limited.

INSKEEP: This American who works for Huawei insists the technical challenges can be met. The political challenges - that may be another question as two giant nations begin to pull apart.


Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.