Allowing Chinese firm Huawei Technologies to help build Canada's 5G wireless networks could give Beijing backdoor access to revealing data about Canadians, security analysts warn.
But at least one intelligence expert is skeptical the Chinese government would risk the international reputation of a marquee corporate star by making the company hand over such information.
As the federal government weighs Huawei's possible participation in the next-generation telecommunications system, the ultimate question is, how much weight will Canada place on fears of inappropriate data-harvesting – or full-blown espionage?
The question has been percolating since long before Canada arrested Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, on an American request, and will still be there after Meng's case has been resolved.
For the record, Huawei stresses it is not a state-controlled enterprise and that it would never facilitate intelligence-gathering on behalf of China or any other country.
However, China's National Intelligence Law plainly states that Chinese organizations and citizens shall support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work, stirring up national security concerns in Canada.
Some Huawei products are already in the fourth-generation networks that millions of Canadians use for wireless internet access. The development of a 5G, or fifth-generation, telecom network will enable much faster internet connections and provide vast data capacity to satisfy ever-expanding demands to do more in cyberspace.
Private companies – big ones such as BCE and Telus – will do the building but the federal government could forbid them to use certain products to do it.
The Chinese firm's possible participation in Canada's 5G infrastructure is widely expected to mean more than just antennas and wires, such as software that will need maintenance and upgrades.
"We're potentially married forever because we will rely on their support – it's their product," said Cytelligence chief executive Daniel Tobok, a digital forensics expert whose company investigates cybersecurity incidents.
Security experts say Huawei's role could give it access to a wide range of data gleaned from how, when and where Canadian customers use their electronic devices. It is information that government agencies would find most attractive.
"This can be used for a lot of things, for manipulation of businesses to harvesting of intellectual property," Tobok said. "On a national security level, they can know who is where at any given time. They can use that as leverage to jump into other operations of the government. They can influence elections.
"Everything is data today, literally. That's why this is so dangerous."
Former Canadian security officials and two members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have warned that Huawei's participation could compromise the security of Canada and its closest allies.
Three of Canada's partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group – the United States, Australia and New Zealand – have forbidden the use of Huawei products in 5G network development in their countries.
The federal government is carrying out a comprehensive review of Huawei's potential involvement that is believed to include a broader, strategic look at how Canada should navigate an increasingly globalized economy.
It will get to the heart of a culture clash within government between proponents of economic benefits and those wary of national-security compromises, said Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence specialist who teaches at the University of Ottawa.
"They need to find a way to bring those voices together," he said. "I think that's very challenging."
Concerns about Beijing's possible influence form "more of a potential issue than a concrete one," said Phil Gurski, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service analyst who is now a private consultant.
But there are valid reasons to question the wisdom of allowing a company based in China – a nation with interests "diametrically opposed" to those of Canada – to play a significant role in developing a key component of the country's future infrastructure, he said.
"China is not a responsible democracy with checks and balances like we have here in the West, and if the Chinese do want to leverage Huawei's capability to collect data on Canadians or whatever, they certainly could tell Huawei to do that," Gurski said.
"I'm not sure Huawei would have any choice but to comply with that order."
Wark acknowledges the potential security risks. But he emphasizes a need for a more nuanced appraisal.
First, the fact Huawei is not a state-owned enterprise means it has latitude to make decisions independently, he said.
In addition, there is no documented evidence the Chinese intelligence laws that took effect last year have actually been used to compel a company to do something on behalf of the Chinese government, Wark added.
"The only thing, I think, we can be sure about at this point is that the laws exist and we haven't seen them implemented."
Finally, it is simplistic to assume the Chinese government would imperil the global reputation, status and integrity of a corporate ambassador like Huawei to conduct cyberespionage, Wark said.
"It doesn't really reflect the way in which the Chinese government thinks about its national champions and how important they are for China in terms of its global economic expansion.
"I can't see many circumstances, other than very extreme ones, in which the Chinese government would actually risk Huawei's standing globally as a company in order to conduct some kind of surveillance campaign."
Banning Huawei from Canada's 5G plans solely because of concerns about a hypothetical future danger would be "a huge step to take," he said.
Still, Canada can't afford to be shut out of the Five Eyes or play a diminished role in the alliance, and if Britain decides to forbid Huawei from taking part in its 5G networks, Canada could not be the lone member to embrace the company, Wark said.
"There would be no political appetite for it."