Border agency using radio equipment from Chinese company banned in the United States

Border agency using radio equipment from Chinese company banned in the United States

For the past five and a half years, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has used communications equipment and technology from controversial Chinese firm Hytera Communications — a company the United States government has banned as a national security threat.

In response to CBC’s questions about the CBSA’s use of Hytera equipment and technology, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said he has asked all departments of its portfolio to terminate all procurement contracts related to Hytera or its subsidiaries amid a controversy to review a similar RCMP contract with one of Hytera’s subsidiaries.

“I have directed my department to conduct a portfolio-wide scan and review any other potential similar contracts that may have been awarded so that we can take any necessary steps to mitigate any risk,” Mendicino said Monday.

“This applies to all departments, including the CBSA.”

CBC News/Radio-Canada has learned that CBSA officers at the Fort Erie Peace Bridge in the Niagara region are equipped with radios from Hytera, a telecommunications company based in Shenzhen, China. The Chinese government owns about 10 percent of Hytera through an investment fund.

Hytera products are prohibited for sale and import into the United States. The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) blacklisted the company for posing “an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States or the safety of US citizens.”

Hytera owns Ontario-based Sinclair Technologies. The federal government faced some sharp national security questions earlier this month when Radio-Canada reported on a contract between Sinclair and the RCMP to supply radio frequency (RF) filtering equipment to Mounties.

The RCMP has since suspended the contract and the Mounties say they are reviewing the HF gear they have installed.

In February 2017, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) awarded Canquest Communications of Chatham, Ontario a contract worth nearly $3 million to provide digital cellular equipment and radio communications infrastructure for CBSA in the Niagara region, which includes four points of Entry.

A spokesman for Procurement and Public Services Canada said the contract with Canquest did not include any security requirements.

Canquest worked with Hytera Canada to build the radio communications infrastructure and sold Hytera radios to CBSA.

“Hytera’s Tier III Pro design architecture is well suited for long-distance public safety services,” says a 2017 Hytera press release on the contract.

Canquest CEO John Smith told community newspaper Chatham Voice in 2017 that Hytera’s technology “gave [Canquest] the “advantage” of winning the tender.

“Hytera is a progressive company,” Smith said in the article. “They supply the Chinese police with radios. This is an incredibly flexible technology.”

Three of the ports of entry in Niagara no longer use Hytera equipment, but the Peace Bridge port of entry still is and will not transition to new radios and network until March 2023.

The CBSA border crossing at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie. Border officials at Friedensbrücke will continue to use Hytera equipment until at least March 2023 after the CBSA extended a procurement contract. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Responding to questions from CBC/Radio-Canada, CBSA spokeswoman Rebecca Purdy said the Peace Bridge crossing was not switched due to technical problems encountered testing the new radio network and equipment.

She said the CBSA conducted its own safety assessment of Hytera’s equipment and technology.

“At the time of closing the deal in 2017, CBSA was aware that Canquest, a Canadian company, is a reseller of Hytera equipment,” she said in an email statement.

“The CBSA takes communications security seriously and has formal processes in place to assess communications security and mitigate risks. To date, these formal processes have not identified any risks that need mitigating to the Peace Bridge facility.”

CBSA has not responded to CBC/Radio-Canada’s follow-up questions about the nature of this safety assessment at the time of this story’s publication.

Smith referred CBC/Radio Canada to CBSA for comment. Hytera Canada did not respond to CBC/Radio-Canada’s request for comment.

Shortly after CBC/Radio-Canada sent questions to CBSA, Mendicino press secretary Alexander Cohen sent an email statement.

“We can confirm that Canada Border Services Agency’s contract with Canquest Communications is expiring in the near future and that the agency will be replacing its equipment with technology from another vendor,” Cohen said in the statement.

A spokesman for Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s signals intelligence agency, said CSE was never asked to conduct a security audit of the equipment or the contract.

Hytera faces 21 espionage charges in the United States. The US Department of Justice accuses the company of stealing technology from the American telecommunications company Motorola.

Public orders with a Chinese company under scrutiny

The controversy over Hytera’s role in Canada’s security infrastructure comes at a time of heightened tensions between Canada and China. The federal government’s Indo-Pacific strategy, released earlier this year, calls for a more aggressive Canadian foreign policy toward Beijing. China’s government has condemned the strategy.

Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said earlier this month that the RCMP’s deal with Sinclair was inconsistent with the government’s approach to China outlined in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry and Technology recently called Mendicino to appear before the committee and answer questions about the RCMP contract with Sinclair.

The Committee would also like to interview François-Philippe Champagne, Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry.

Some committee members expressed interest in asking Champagne why Hytera was able to buy Norsat International – Sinclair’s parent company – in 2017 without a government national security clearance of the transaction.

Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne and Minister for Public Safety Marco Mendicino hold a press conference in Ottawa on May 19, 2022. A House of Commons committee wants to question both ministers on the impact of Chinese technology and equipment on Canada’s national security. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has responded to criticism of the RCMP’s Sinclair contract by saying the civil service is responsible and promising changes to public procurement.

“In any event, we will first identify what needs to be done to ensure our communications technology is secure, but also ensure we identify how this could continue to happen and ensure Canada is not in lowest bidder contracts to sign, which then reverse and expose us to vulnerabilities,” Trudeau said earlier this month.

“We will be asking some real questions of the independent civil service that signed these contracts and we will ensure that this is changed in the future. It is high time that this happened.”

The federal government banned Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from Canada’s 5G infrastructure earlier this year. Huawei is among Chinese companies banned by the FCC.

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