Don’t trust phones from Huawei and ZTE, the FBI warns – without seemingly any real evidence or reason
Huawei is the second biggest phone seller on the planet, but if it has any hopes of overtaking Samsung at the top of the tree, there’s one big obstacle in its path: making it big in America. While US citizens are free to import Huawei devices SIM-free, 90% of Americans get their phone directly from the carriers – and the carriers firmly refuse to deal with Huawei.
Last month, Huawei was widely rumoured to be announcing a breakthrough: that the excellent Mate 10 Pro would be sold through AT&T, a company that’s held a third of the US carrier market share for the last decade. AT&T mysteriously pulled out at the last moment, and it was later revealed that Verizon had done the same. It’s now clear why. The US intelligence services view Chinese phone manufacturers as a security threat.
FBI director Chris Wray told a senate intelligence committee on Wednesday that the agency was “deeply concerned about the risks of allowing a company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments… to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.”
The fear, he continued, would allow Huawei or ZTE “the capacity to exert pressure or control over our telecommunications infrastructure, it provides the capacity to maliciously modify or stealinformation and provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.”
Other panel members, including the NSA director Mike Rogers and officials from the CIA seemed in agreement. When asked to raise their hands if they would recommend a handset from Huawei or ZTE to a US citizen, not a single member of the panel did. Maybe they’re just all BlackBerry fanboys.
It’s worth remembering, at this point, that Google trusted Huawei enough to build the Nexus 6P on their behalf – a handset that was sold in the United States. So why the fuss?
Intelligence services certainly have reasons to be suspicious of foreign governments, and they do, presumably, have inside information that informs these views, but publicly there is very little evidence that a company like Huawei is up to anything. Indeed, the Chinese giant defended itself in the strongest possible terms, saying in a statement that such concerns are “critically important” to everyone.
“Huawei is trusted by governments and customers in 170 countries worldwide, connecting one-third of the world’s population,” said Huawei’s vice president of external affairs William Plummer. “Privacy and security are critically important to all of us these days and we must all be cautious to protect our personal and family and professional data from compromise.
“In a world in which every information technology solution is the product of global supply chains, authorities should also be cautious not to brand one or another supplier as ‘more vulnerable’ than others – this is misleading at best, dangerous at worst.”
But while curious researchers have found suspicious-looking code on other Chinese handsets, Huawei’s hands have been clean – and it’s not like people haven’t been looking. In a somewhat ironic twist given the FBI accusations, the Edward Snowden leaks showed that the NSA created a program called “Shotgiant” to create backdoors into Huawei networks back in 2012, with the hope of finding ties between the company and the government.
They found nothing. As the New York Times reported, “Two years after Shotgiant became a major program, the House Intelligence Committee delivered an unclassified report on Huawei and another Chinese company, ZTE, that cited no evidence confirming the suspicions about Chinese government ties.” Despite this, the report still included the conclusion that the companies should still be blocked from “acquisitions, takeover or mergers” as they “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence.”
It’s unclear what, if anything, US intelligence has found about Huawei and ZTE that develops this gut feeling further, but it looks like Huawei will have to continue its push to world domination via the 7.3 billion people who live outside the United States of America.