Tuesday 22 September 2020

Amsterdam universities signed deal with controversial tech giant Huawei

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Amsterdam universities UvA and VU have entered into a close collaboration with controversial Chinese tech company Huawei despite government warnings, the Financieele Dagblad reported on Tuesday.

The tech giant, which is widely suspected of spying for the Chinese state, is increasingly unwelcome in most European countries and the universities’ move has divided opinion, the paper said.

The deal, signed on May 15, comprises a €3.5m payment to both universities which will reportedly be used to finance a lab for the development of artificial intelligence, employing around 100 people.

Researchers at the lab will be specifically tasked with developing technology for a search machine for Huawei, which has been banned from using Google on its mobile phones.

The agreement comes despite Dutch government warnings about universities working with Chinese partners because it could result in an ‘unwanted exchange of knowledge’, potentially causing national security issues and damage to economic interests.

Surprisingly, however, intelligence and security services AIVD and NCTV, which met with university representatives on January 30 to discuss the move, did not register any objections to the deal. In addition, both the education ministry and the economic affairs ministry signalled support, the FD said, albeit among warnings of ‘great potential risks’.

The education ministry even confirmed to the paper it had ‘facilitated’ the meeting between the security services and university representatives on its premises.

The AIVD told the paper the meeting was an ‘awareness presentation’ but did not want to comment any further.

Independent

The boards of both universities have dismissed worries about possible Chinese state intervention, saying the work for Huawei ‘has nothing to do with the network equipment which is causing public discussion’.

A spokesman for the two universities told the paper that a ‘thorough check’ had been carried out to ensure that scientists can publish their findings independently and that sensitive information will not be shared. The security services had been happy with the guarantees put in place to prevent potential knowledge theft, he said.

However, the Rathenau Institute, an independent government tech advisory body, has said that in AI research the boundaries between military and civil technology have become blurred.

It calls for clear government guidelines for universities to establish if a cooperation with ‘a company such as Huawei’ is acceptable or not. Last year Oxford university severed its ties with Huawei following a public outcry about the cooperation.

The Dutch government has also come under considerable pressure, particularly from the US, to keep Huawei out of the Netherlands 5G network development plans.

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