The Washington Area Metropolitan Transport Authority is accepting bids this month for next-generation subway cars for Metro. Among the companies likely to bid is a Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei. It has a history of submitting low bids, subsidized by the Chinese government, to U.S. transportation authorities. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia have all recently signed contracts with Huawei. Local transportation authorities sacrifice the nation’s long-term economic interests and potentially its self-sufficiency to short-term budgetary goals when they select foreign-made equipment that is subsidized by a foreign government over unsubsidized equipment that is manufactured domestically.
Moreover, there is cause for concern that rail cars from Huawei would pose direct risks to our national security. One lesson from the Mueller report’s account of Russian interference in the 2016 election is that foreign espionage operations in the U.S. are more far-reaching and dangerous than most Americans have imagined. And modern rail cars offer broad opportunities for spying and sabotage.
Today’s rail cars are not stand-alone units, but contain elements of a comprehensive digital communications network that enables the rail system to operate more safely and efficiently. Each entity in the system, including each fixed and moving part, communicates constantly with the rest of the system. Video surveillance is part of this functionality. The cars also carry wi-fi hotspots for their passengers’ convenience.
For Metro, one security risk is that Huawei cars might include equipment that would collect and transmit information about Metro passengers to Chinese spy agencies. This could include video surveillance images that would enable the agencies, using artificial intelligence, to identify who was traveling where and when on Metro. It could also include data from the digital phones and other devices carried by Metro passengers. In addition, a malicious digital “back door” could enable the Chinese government to direct the Metro system to lockdown or malfunction. Similar concerns about the possibility that malicious functionality might be embedded in Huawei telecommunications equipment, enabling the Chinese government to spy on or sabotage the system of which it is a part, has led some foreign countries to ban or restrict use of Huawei products in their telecommunications networks. (Economist 4/27/19 at 16; behind paywall).
These concerns may seem far-fetched, but China has already installed comprehensive and intrusive spying equipment in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, home to several non-Chinese ethnic minorities, some of whose members oppose Chinese rule. It has adopted a law that compels Chinese firms to participate in intelligence-gathering whenever the Chinese Communist Party so requests. (Economist 4/27/19 at 55; behind paywall). CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm, reported in February the discovery of digital intrusions by China and other countries “likely supporting” state espionage.
Metro’s initial Request for Proposals for the new rail cars did not list cybersecurity as a criterion for selecting the winning bidder. After an op-ed in the Post, Metro amended its RFP to include consideration of cybersecurity. In a subsequent letter Virginia’s and Maryland’s Democratic Senators – Sens. Warner, Kaine, Cardin, and Van Hollen – sought information about how Metro would evaluate cybersecurity issues relating to the new rail cars and urged Metro to impose rigorous cybersecurity standards.
This issue warrants the continued attention of our Senators. Please email them a message of support for their work to date and ask them to continue to exert pressure on Metro not to purchase rail cars from Huawei, and please also let our local Representatives know your views:
Thank you for asking Metro to implement strict cybersecurity standards in evaluating bids for its new rail cars. Please continue to work with Metro to ensure that it does not purchase rail cars that could enable a foreign government to spy on Metro passengers or threaten the safety and reliability of the Metro system.
Email your comments to Sen. Mark Warner
Email your comments to Sen. Tim Kaine
Email your comments to Rep. Don Beyer
Email your comments to Rep. Gerry Connolly
Email your comments to Rep. Jennifer Wexton