Public safety minister orders department-wide review of procurement contracts with Hytera
By Richard Raycraft, Marc Godbout - CBC News
December 20, 2022
CBC has learned that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has used radio equipment and technology from the Chinese company Hytera Communications. The United States government has banned Hytera, which is partly owned by the Chinese government, due to national security concerns.(Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press).
For the past five and a half years, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has been using communications equipment and technology from the controversial Chinese firm Hytera Communications — a company the United States government has banned as a national security threat.
In response to CBC's questions about CBSA's use of Hytera equipment and technology, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said he's asked all departments across his portfolio to review any procurement contracts linked to Hytera or its subsidiaries in the wake of a controversy over a similar RCMP contract with one of Hytera's subsidiaries.
"I have instructed my department to do a portfolio-wide scan and review of any other potential similar contracts which may have been awarded, so that we can take whatever steps are necessary to mitigate any against any risks that may exist," Mendicino said Monday.
"That will apply right across all departments, including the CBSA."
CBC News/Radio-Canada has learned that at the Fort Erie Peace Bridge in Niagara Region, CBSA officers are equipped with radios made by Hytera, a telecommunications company based in Shenzhen, China. China's government owns about 10 per cent of Hytera through an investment fund.
Hytera products are banned for sale and import in the United States. The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has blacklisted the company for posing "an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States or the security and safety of United States persons."
Hytera is the owner of Ontario-based Sinclair Technologies. The federal government faced some pointed national security questions earlier this month when Radio-Canada reported on a contract between Sinclair and the RCMP to supply Mounties with radio frequency (RF) filtering equipment.
The RCMP has since suspended the contract and the Mounties say they're reviewing the RF equipment they've installed.
In February 2017, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) awarded a contract worth just under $3 million to Canquest Communications of Chatham, Ont., to provide digital mobile radios and radio communication infrastructure for CBSA in the Niagara Region, which includes four points of entry.
A spokesperson for Procurement and Public Services Canada said the contract with Canquest did not include any security requirements.
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Canquest worked with Hytera Canada to build the radio communications infrastructure and sold Hytera radio equipment to CBSA.
"Hytera's Tier III Pro design architecture is well suited for wide area public safety service," says a 2017 Hytera news release on the contract.
Canquest's CEO John Smith told the Chatham Voice community newspaper in 2017 that Hytera's technology "gave [Canquest] the edge" in winning the bid.
"Hytera is a progressive company," Smith said in the article. "They provide the Chinese police force with radios. This is incredibly flexible technology."
Three of the Niagara ports of entry are no longer using Hytera equipment, but the Peace Bridge port of entry still is and won't transition to new radio equipment and a new network until March 2023.
The CBSA border crossing at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie. Border agents at the Peace Bridge will continue to use Hytera equipment until at least March 2023 after CBSA extended a procurement contract.(Greg Bruce/CBC).
Responding to questions from CBC/Radio-Canada, CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said the Peace Bridge border crossing hasn't switched because of technical issues that emerged during testing of the new radio network and equipment.
She said CBSA did its own security assessment of the Hytera equipment and technology.
"At the time the contract was put in place in 2017, CBSA was aware that Canquest, a Canadian company, was a reseller of Hytera equipment," she said in an email statement.
"CBSA takes communications security seriously and has formal processes in place to assess communications security and mitigate risk. To date, these formal processes have not identified any risks to be mitigated for the Peace Bridge facility."
CBSA did not provide answers to CBC/Radio-Canada's follow-up questions on the nature of that security assessment by the time this story was published.
Smith referred CBC/Radio Canada to CBSA for comment. Hytera Canada has not responded to CBC/Radio-Canada's request for comment.
Commons committee to question ministers on RCMP contract with China-linked company
Shortly after CBC/Radio-Canada sent questions to CBSA, Alexander Cohen, Mendicino's press secretary, sent an email statement.
"We can confirm that the Canada Border Services Agency's contract with Canquest Communications will expire in the near future, and that the Agency will replace its equipment with technology from another vendor," Cohen said in the statement.
A spokesperson for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada's signals intelligence agency, said CSE was never asked to do a security review of the equipment or contract.
Hytera is facing 21 espionage-related charges in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused the company of conspiring to steal technology from the American telecommunications firm Motorola.
Public contracts with Chinese company under scrutiny
Controversy over Hytera's role in Canada's security infrastructure comes at a time of heightened tensions between Canada and China. The federal government's Indo-Pacific Strategy, released earlier this year, calls for a more aggressive Canadian foreign policy toward Beijing. China's government has condemned the strategy.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said earlier this month that the RCMP's contract with Sinclair is inconsistent with the government's approach to China outlined in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The House of Commons standing committee on industry and technology recently called Mendicino to appear before the committee to answer questions about the RCMP contract with Sinclair.
The committee is also looking to question François-Philippe Champagne, the minister of innovation, science and industry.
Some committee members expressed interest in asking Champagne about why Hytera was able to purchase Norsat International — Sinclair's parent company — in 2017 without a government national security review of the transaction.
Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne and Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino hold a press conference in Ottawa on May 19, 2022. A House of Commons committee is looking to question both ministers about the effect of Chinese technology and equipment on Canada's national security.(David Kawai/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has responded to criticism of the RCMP's Sinclair contract by saying the civil service was responsible for it and pledging changes to public procurement.
"Absolutely, we're going to be finding out first of all what needs to be done to ensure that our communications technology is secure, but also make sure we're figuring out how this could continue to happen and make sure that Canada is not signing contracts with the lowest bidder that then turn around and leave us exposed to security flaws," Trudeau said earlier this month.
"We will have some real questions for the independent public service that signed these contracts, and we'll make sure that this is changed going forward. It's high time that happens."
The federal government banned the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from Canada's 5G infrastructure earlier this year. Huawei is among the Chinese companies the FCC has banned.
With files from Catharine Tunney