The New York Times and German newspaper Spiegel Online have reported the existence of a document that purports to show the US government spying on Chinese tech company Huawei, the world’s second largest supplier of networking products, since at least 2009.

The revelation is laced with irony because Huawei has long been labelled a national security risk by US politicians. Alongside fellow Chinese firm ZTE, Huawei has been the subject of multiple reports over alleged relationships with China’s army, and questions of whether its networking products could leave US organizations open to hacking from China if they were deployed on US soil.

The answer seems to be yes, according to the reports, which claim that the NSA — working in tandem with the FBI and White House — got its hands on the Chinese company’s source code, aka “the holy grail of computer companies,” as Spiegel Online puts it. That, it is said, allowed US officials to spy on emails sent across the Huawei network from January 2009 onward: targets included China-based organizations and Huawei customers in countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Beyond that, Spiegel Online claims a “special unit” inside the NSA was able to access a range of documents — including Huawei’s customer list, which is not disclosed to the public — that allowed it to train others in the organization about the Chinese firm’s products.

Huawei spokesman Bill Plummer said in a statement:

If it is true, the irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us. If such espionage has been truly conducted, then it is known that the company is independent and has no unusual ties to any government and that knowledge should be relayed publicly to put an end to an era of mis- and disinformation.

An NSA spokesperson gave Spiegel Online a fairly generic statement that states that “our intelligence activities are focused on the national security needs of our country.”

The timing of the article is particularly interesting since President Obama’s wife is visiting China, where, among many things, she has espoused the right to Internet freedom to Chinese students. Might that be down to some politicizing from those in possession of the leaked documents — who perhaps intended to make the visit awkward — or is that simply coincidental?

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