Donald Trump's national security adviser has issued a dire warning to Canada about Chinese telecom giant Huawei, saying Ottawa should reject the company's plan to deploy its 5G network because the technology would be used as a "Trojan horse" to undermine national security.
"When they get Huawei into Canada ... they're going to know every health record, every banking record, every social media post — they're going to know everything about every single Canadian," Robert O'Brien said at an international security conference in Halifax.
"What the Chinese are doing makes Facebook and Google look like child's play, as far as collecting information on folks."
He said the Chinese state could use data scraped from its 5G mobile network to "micro-target" Canadians with personalized texts aimed at undermining elections.
The national security adviser, who was appointed to the job in September, says the fallout from such an intrusion into personal data would have an impact on Canada's participation in the Five Eyes alliance, which includes the intelligence agencies in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
"The Huawei Trojan horse is frightening, it's terrifying," O'Brien said on the first full day of the Halifax Security Forum, which has attracted more than 300 delegates from government, the military and the academic community.
"I find it amazing that our allies and friends in other liberal democracies would allow Huawei in ... I'm surprised that there's even a debate out there."
Last Friday, Beijing's new representative in Canada dismissed the notion Huawei could compromise the security of 5G users by installing "back-door" channels in mobile devices.
Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu said that was a "groundless accusation."
"So we do hope the Canadian side will provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies, including Huawei," he told reporters during a roundtable discussion in Ottawa.
For its part, Huawei has stressed it is not a state-controlled enterprise and that it would never spy on behalf of China or any other country.
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan later issued a statement saying the security of Canadians remains Ottawa's No. 1 priority.
"We have been extremely mindful in protecting our current 4G technology and the decisions that we make regarding 5G will make sure that these systems are as strong as our current system, if not stronger," Sajjan said.
"We have the appropriate process and regulations in place to protect our infrastructure and Canadians. We are going to take our time so that we can appropriately examine all potential threats."
At the Halifax conference, which has attracted delegates from 70 democratic countries, O'Brien wasn't the only U.S. official taking aim at Huawei.
Earlier in the day, Republican Senator James Risch, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, told reporters that Canada should think twice before getting involved with a company that he said is little more than an arm of the Chinese Communist party.
"When any information goes to Huawei, the Chinese Communist party will have access to that information," said Risch, who is from Idaho.
"Is it worth it, to save a bit of money by buying a cheaper system? My conclusion is a resounding no. I would hope that the Canadian government would reach the same conclusion."
U.S. Senator Angus King from Maine, who sits on the Senate intelligence committee, said if Canada allows Huawei to deploy its network, "it would make it very difficult to have full intelligence sharing ... with a partner who has installed a direct line to Beijing."
Relations between Canada and China have been difficult since last December, when Canadian authorities took Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou into custody over American allegations the company violated sanctions on Iran.
Wenzhou's extradition case is before a Canadian court. She remains under house arrest in Vancouver.
Soon after she was arrested, Beijing detained two Canadians, businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, on allegations of undermining China's national security.
The arrests are widely seen in Canada as retaliation for the detention of Meng.
O'Brien said the U.S. administration feels the same way.
He said Canada shouldn't consider approving a Huawei network until China releases Spavor and Kovrig.
"The way that they're treating the two Michaels is not right," O'Brien said. "It's a wrongful detention in order to gain leverage."
On Friday, Cong demanded Meng's release, and the ambassador said her arrest and pending extradition to the U.S. amount to arbitrary detention.
This report by the Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2019