In September, Chinese telecommunication and computing technology company Huawei held its Huawei Connect conference in Shanghai and showed an invited group of journalists – including myself - around its factory in Shenzhen. During the visit, the company placed great emphasis on its commitment to being trusted by its customers and stakeholders and it approach to protecting and not monetising their personal data.
The visit put rotating chairman Guo Ping in front of the media for a question and answer session. While this provided a valuable insight into the company’s vision and view of its market, it also revealed (perhaps unwittingly) the limits of transparency within a guarded society like China. This was perhaps most evident in Ping’s deflection of my questions about data ethics and data science in favour of the corporate line.
"We attach great importance to the protection of data and privacy."
“At Huawei, we take cybersecurity and data protection as our highest priorities. We attach great importance to the protection of data and privacy, and we commit ourselves to compliance with those regulations in the countries where we operate, including GDPR in Europe,” he said. “The biggest difference between Huawei and internet service providers is that Huawei has never and Huawei will never monetise customer data.”
In recognition of some negative perceptions of the business, at one point Ping stressed: “If we did not do enough in the past, we are committed to further enhance our openness, collaboration and transparency so that different stakeholders - consumers, customers - have stronger confidence in Huawei as they select our products and services.”
Ping made very clear that the underlying business model for Huawei is to drive revenue and profits from its technologies and products. That does not encompass data monetisation, not least because of the distance he identified between the technology infrastructure Huawei sells and the companies that make use of those products.
"Huawei does not own telephone networks or the data that runs through them."
“To give you one example in the telecoms business, Huawei does not own telephone networks. Telephone networks are owned by telephony operators and we do not own data that runs through their networks. Data is owned by telephone service providers and their users,” he stressed.
That said, issues like cybersecurity do fall within the tech vendor’s ambit, not least through R&D investment into products to help keep hackers out of those data streams. “The second part of the investment is related to our technologies and operations so that, as we do operations for cloud services, the customer data involved would not get abused to ensure we will be compliant with the applicable laws and the regulations,” added Ping.
There is one area in which that distinction between the technology pipe and the data flowing through it getting squeezed - the new realm of artificial intelligence. Ping noted that there are three critical elements to AI: computing power, algorithms and data.
“Where do Huawei products come in in that equation? We firstly ensure that data that runs through the products cannot be properly obtained by others. We have technology expertise to ensure that,” he said. “We provide Kunpeng and Ascend processors as underlying computing capabilities to help our customers to build their own platforms to make computing which used to be impossible, possible today.”
Ping argued that Huawei has a role to play in encouraging the adoption of algorithms and automation. But he viewed this as very distinct from running and operating data, rather than technology.
He said: “In terms of our algorithms, this is an area that Huawei will work together with our customers or partners on the training and the maturity of the algorithms because, unlike the internet service providers or over-the-top internet service providers like Facebook or Google who have a vast number of data, Huawei has a limited set of data. Therefore, we are going to work together with our partners and customers, taking their data through training and learning.”
Huawei clearly recognises that it has work to do in convincing some customers and markets that it really has no interest in any data its systems might carry or process, not least against a backdrop of the US ban on its technology running 5G and a pending UK decision on the same subject. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-49481270) One move has been through transparent reporting.
"Since 2000 we’ve hired international auditing firms to ... audit our financial numbers."
Ping said: “Huawei is not a public company, but since the year 2000, we’ve hired international auditing firms to help Huawei audit our financial numbers. This year, we published our annual reports and we keep engaging and communicating with all stakeholders, including our customers and suppliers. For Huawei, it’s of paramount importance to get the support and trust of our customers, consumers and other stakeholders.”
Despite engaging with the media and talking about openness, I was unable to drill down into how Huawei itself uses data to drive the business or the size of its data science team, for example. The response above about auditing was a deflection from a question about how open Huawei can really be within the context of China’s controlling state.
But then it is difficult for somebody living in the West and working in the free press to understand fully how that country is transitioning from one political system into another and what that means for a business operating there. Huawei was clearly keen to become more open and to make it clear that revenues come from technology and it sees no profit in exploiting privacy. For the rest, that is for our own politicians to decide.