U of T and Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, have extended their multimillion-dollar research partnership by five years. The initial partnership began in 2016 and has seen over $3.5 million funnelled from the private Chinese company to dozens of research projects at the university. The extension of the partnership comes on the tail of concerns circulating for months about whether the company’s operations in Canada pose a threat to national security.

Vivek Goel, the Vice-President of Research and Innovation at U of T, told The Varsity that “since signing the partnership agreement, Huawei has supported dozens of U of T projects involving more than 30 principal investigations and their trainees.”

“Such partnerships boost opportunities for innovation and education by providing researchers and students with tools, technologies and data that might otherwise be inaccessible,” Goel said.

Private sector partnership and intellectual property rights

Much of the partnership research takes place at U of T’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The research focuses on the development of new circuits for high-speed connections and designs for 5G cellular networks, the next stage in mobile communications technology.

In 2016–2017, U of T received $125 million in research funding from the private sector, making up 10.8 per cent of its total research funding. The university declined to reveal whether there was a minimum funding guarantee from Huawei over the next five years, citing proprietary information. The partnership agreement itself is not a public document.

Scott Bradley, Huawei’s Vice-President of Corporate Affairs in Canada, told The Varsity that numerous research papers are among the products of the research partnership with U of T. Papers, along with patents, make up the determinants of success for Huawei’s continuation of its partnerships. “New ideas and leading-edge research helps to serve as a foundation for new technologies that could be developed in the future – either by Huawei, by the students and academics doing the research, or by other Canadian researchers,” Bradley said in an email.

An investigation by The Globe and Mail in May highlighted the scope of Huawei’s global research partnerships in the company’s race to cement itself as a global leader in 5G technologies. One element of the Globe investigation was Huawei’s hold over the exclusive licensing rights of research in 40 cases, and the licensing of intellectual property rights from other researchers.

All research covered under the scope of U of T and Huawei’s agreement includes joint licensing rights. “The focus of our investment at the University of Toronto and other Canadian universities is in pure research,” Bradley said, “not the development of specific products.”

With regard to intellectual property, Goel said that U of T’s agreements with Huawei are “as strong or stronger” than with its other industry partners.

National security concerns

Huawei, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, is also a world leader in networking systems, and it is the second largest smartphone manufacturer after Samsung.

The company works with 13 universities in Canada, including Carleton University, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Waterloo, and dozens more around the world. While its global influence in research is vast — with 16 research and development centres across North and South America, Europe, and Asia — the company has faced scrutiny over whether its operations could pose threats to national security.

The United States and Australia both banned Huawei’s equipment from use in government and communications infrastructure this summer. Security officials in the United States urged the Canadian government to do the same, prompting a federal probe into the company’s operations in the country and revealing a history of tests on Huawei’s equipment.

The head of the Centre for Cyber Security and Canada’s top cybersecurity official, Scott Jones, affirmed to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security on September 20 that banning Huawei from Canada is not necessary.

On Huawei’s end, Bradley said that “while these issues have recently received media coverage, these are not new questions for Huawei Canada, Canadian operators, or the Canadian Government.”

Huawei opened its first Canadian office in 2008. Since then, according to Bradley, “Huawei has worked openly and transparently to address these issues with the Canadian Government and Canadian operators over this time without issue.” Bradley called Huawei’s track record “our commitment to Canada.”

Goel said that the university works with individuals or organizations that are legally operating in Canada and that the government has not provided any direction regarding issues of national security.

Responses to Chinese state influence on Huawei’s operations

The thrust behind concerns of Huawei in Canada stem from the company’s inextricable ties to the Chinese state.

“[All Chinese firms] have to listen to the government one way or the other, because they operate in an authoritarian environment,” Lynette Ong, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, told The Varsity. “The government has the power to shut down your company, to keep the business leaders in check.”

Ong said that she has no reason to believe that Huawei is outside of the Chinese government’s control. “Huawei will have to toe the government line if the government wants the company to do so.”

Concerns about Huawei’s operations aren’t limited to Canada, Australia, or the United States alone: a report in The Globe and Mail in May revealed that Huawei was working on advanced security technology with the Chinese government in the turbulent Xinjiang region. The Chinese government has been developing Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, into a centre for technologies used in public surveillance in a region facing threats of terrorism and radicalization.

“This is a very sensitive issue,” Ong said, “so I think U of T should be proceeding with caution.”

Bradley declined to comment on allegations that Huawei has been involved in the development of technology for state surveillance in China.

Goel said that U of T works “with partner organizations, companies, [and] NGOs right around the world, and it’s not possible for us to be the ones that are going to evaluate what’s happening in every part of the world with every organization we work with.”

“We rely on our partners in government to identify if there are organizations we shouldn’t be working with,” Goel said.

Len Brooks, a Professor of Business Ethics & Accounting in UTM’s Department of Management, said that the operations of the university’s research partners outside of just the scope of their research agreement should be taken into account, but shouldn’t be the sole determinant of the continuation of relationships. He noted the importance of ongoing monitoring by the university to stay abreast of the activities of their partners.

“The partnerships you make [as a university] bear upon your reputation,” Brooks said. “It would be a mistake to consider only the financial side of this.”