Controversy as Belgian Defence uses Chinese appliances to access the internet

Controversy as Belgian Defence uses Chinese appliances to access the internet
Credit: Belga

Despite warnings of the dangers of Chinese appliances, Belgian Defence sparked controversy as it emerged that it uses hundreds of Huawei wifi routers, bought at the start of 2022.

Surveillance cameras and smartphones aren't without risks, as the potential for Chinese espionage has made headlines in Belgium and across Europe. Belgian state security has warned against using 5G technology from China, although it hasn't found formal proof of espionage.

Lithuania went one step further when its Defence Ministry advised citizens to get rid of all Chinese phones in September 2021, following the discovery of built-in censorship on some handsets. Given China's dominance in the production of electronics, it would be extremely difficult to completely boycott their products.

No internet after cyber attack

Following a cyber attack in December 2021, Belgian Defence needed to beef up its wifi access, as the attack prevented staff from accessing the internet and checking emails for weeks. It is still unclear who is responsible for the attack.

Belgian media blame the Ministry of Defence for going ahead with the purchase, despite the risks surrounding Huawei. The controversy led the Ministry of Defence to call an emergency press meeting Thursday afternoon.

Vice-Admiral Wim Robberecht, head of military intelligence, said: "The SGRS wishes to reassure that the temporary solution that was put in place (after the cyberattack) did not concern the secure networks of the SGRS or the Defence. Therefore, no sensitive or strategic data passed through this temporary network. The latter was only used for general public research on the internet."

Risk of espionage

Minister of Defence Ludivine Dedonder informed the Parliament in January that her ministry have some 30 surveillance cameras from Chinese video surveillance companies, Hikvision and Dahua. The ministry claimed that the danger of espionage was limited because the cameras aren't connected with the internet.

However, an anonymous security researcher discovered a glitch in Hikvision's products that "permits an attacker to gain full control of the device," they said in September. The researcher went on to say that the cameras have "the highest level of critical vulnerability" for surveillance cameras.

Further to this, security research group IPVM noted that this vulnerability could have an adverse effect of millions of cameras worldwide. Getting access to the data of these cameras would be an "easy hack to perform," said IPVM director Conor Healy in POLITICO.

The 'amateurism' of Belgian Defence

There are alleged risks surrounding the use of Chinese equipment, which appear to have been overlooked or ignored by Belgian Defence.

Belgian deputy Dallemand didn't hold back in Le Soir: “This umpteenth episode of amateurism on the part of Defence is truly astounding. An elementary principle of precaution should have prevailed during the acquisition of this Huawei computer equipment which is forced by Chinese law to transmit the information it has to its government. Especially when it comes to replacing equipment that has just been the subject of a massive attack," he said.  “I ask that this error be corrected immediately."

Politicians are set to question Ludivine Dedonder further when Parliament next convenes, according to Le Soir.

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