New warnings are emerging about the potential threat to American nuclear weapons posed by Chinese cellphone technology.
The technology is made by Chinese telecom company Huawei, which has been in the news a lot lately.
Most recently, they sued the U.S. government for banning their technology because it’s considered a national security threat.
For that reason, American telecom giants don’t use Huawei, but smaller cellphone networks do.
And some of those companies cover rural areas where the U.S. military houses its nuclear missiles. That, experts say, is a serious concern.
Hidden beneath a vast, snowy prairieland in central Montana are more than 100 nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), ready for launch.
It’s desolate terrain, but vital to American national security, which experts worry could face a threat from China.
A fenced-in area houses a missile silo, controlled by Malmstrom Air Force Base. Right next to it is a cell tower belonging to a company called Triangle Communication Systems.
It’s an American company, but its network uses radio transmitters and receivers made by Huawei.
“We’re deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Given the power of the Chinese government over Chinese companies, experts say the Huawei technology could be weaponized by Beijing.
“If they ask Huawei, turn off the phones, tell us what people are doing, scramble the data going over it, block calls, make random phone calls, there’s nothing we could really do to stop that,” said James Lewis, director of the Technology Policy Program at the DC-based think tank The Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Missile bases use encrypted communications, but valuable intelligence could be gathered on the people working with ICBMs. And the areas could be targeted with network attacks.
There’s no evidence anything like that has happened, but CNN has identified dozens of cellphone towers equipped with Huawei technology, some dispersed among the Malmstrom nuclear missile fields.
“ICBMs are supposed to be pretty hard. That might not be easy to do, but that doesn’t mean our opponents won’t try and figure out if they can do it,” Lewis said.
Some rural areas close to U.S. military bases like Malmstrom are so remote that often the only cellphone service comes from small networks.
Unlike major carriers like Verizon and AT&T (which owns CNN parent company WarnerMedia), smaller companies depend on government subsidies, and many buy cheaper equipment made by Chinese companies like Huawei.
While the company is barred from U.S. government contracts, and federal employees can’t use their devices, rural carriers have no such restrictions.
The companies that own the cell towers in some rural areas are part of the Rural Wireless Association, who say a quarter of their members buy Huawei because it’s far cheaper, and that it would cost up to $1 billion to switch out.
“We thought China was going to be a friend. We bought the technology from them,” Lewis said. “And now it would be really expensive to rip it out. Too expensive for most of these companies to afford.”
The Pentagon would not say what kind of relationship, if any, it has with these carriers, but Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told CNN in a statement they are “working closely with our industrial and research partners to develop comprehensive and innovative solutions for both the department and commercial industries.”
There was no response from Triangle, the smaller carrier in Montana, when asked for comment.
Huawei said they go to great lengths to protect their clients’ systems and their users’ data. However, a spokesman admitted all networks are at risk for targeting by sophisticated countries.