A BBC Panorama documentary last week revealed how controversial Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei installed potential backdoors into a mass surveillance ‘Safe City’ project in Pakistan, to the surprise of authorities where the technology was deployed.

The government has been flirting with a similar project in conjunction with Huawei which is expected to be trialled in trouble spots like Paceville.

In 2016, the Maltese government signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the Safe City project.

Another agreement was signed last year to trial Huawei’s 5G technology in Malta.

Concerns have been mounting that Huawei could be used as a proxy by the Chinese government to spy on other countries using their technology through backdoors installed in its systems.

According to the BBC documentary, tiny WiFi transmitting cards were found to have been plugged in to hundreds of CCTV cabinets housing the hardware across Lahore in Pakistan.

Sources told the BBC that the explanation behind the WiFi cards installed by Huawei was that it would be easier to troubleshoot problems without opening up the cabinets, though the documentary noted that such troubleshooting could already be carried out from the centrally controlled network.

To avoid “potential misuse”, the Pakistani authorities ordered the removal of the WiFi cards.

Asked to comment about the findings in light of plans for a similar project, Safe City Malta director Joe Cuschieri, who also doubles up as the MFSA’s CEO, said he could not speculate about the performance of any vendor of hardware or software products deployed for projects in other countries.

Mr Cuschieri said that when it came to security, best practice demanded a zero trust model by design, irrespective of who the vendor or vendors involved were.

This was done to mitigate against vulnerabilities, whether known to the vendor or not, and this meant engineering design measures were taken by the customer to mitigate even against such improbable situations, he said.

The project is being overseen by Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, whose wife Sai Mizzi was credited with bringing Huawei to Malta.

A US senior administration official told The Sunday Times of Malta last February that in view of intelligence gathered by US agencies over the last few years on Huawei, which they see as a “national security threat”, meetings have been held with top Maltese government officials to “share the information and express our concerns”.

Asked if the Malta Security Services and US authorities had given any advice about the country’s ties with Huawei, Mr Cuschieri said he could not comment on any security related matters.

The EU has resisted pressure from the US to ban Huawei equipment being used for 5G networks across Europe.

The European Commission said last month that EU Member States were responsible for making their own security decisions, but has asked them to complete a 5G risk assessment by June.

Apart from the security concerns linked to Huawei, European Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová has flagged potential data protection concerns about the project.

In response to a letter sent by MEP candidate Michael Briguglio, Ms Jourová said a project that would gather so much data from public areas using sophisticated technologies could result in a high risk for people’s freedoms.

The Commissioner called for a data protection impact assessment to analyse the necessity and proportionality of such a project.


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