What would you say if I told you that your Huawei phone could be spying on you? You’d probably call me a conspiracy theorist. But would you believe that multiple countries’ intelligence communities, including the US, feel the same way?
Whether you’re worried about the privacy of your Huawei devices or would simply like to stay in the know concerning your smart devices, here’s everything you need to know.
Are Anti-Huawei Claims Evidence-Based?
Many skeptics attribute the anti-Huawei sentiment by the US government to protectionism or wanting to restrict international trade in order to support domestic alternatives. But over the past few years, the intelligence and tech communities of various western countries were expressing their concerns with Huawei devices and privacy.
Early in 2018, the head of six major US intelligence agencies issued a warning at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. They cautioned that US citizens shouldn’t use any commercial products offered by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE.
Tech journalists claimed that there was no solid evidence that Huawei and other Chinese brands employ any hidden and malicious privacy invasion. But more recently, Huawei devices have taken the center stage in cyberattacks and European country’s cybersecurity reports and concerns.
In 2012, Australia’s telecommunications network was under attack when a software update with malicious code was installed on their Huawei devices, an incident only made public in 2021. Over the course of seven years, between 2012 and 2019, the breach was confirmed by two dozen former national security officials in both the US and Australia.
Governments Globally Warn Against Huawei
While it’s unlikely that Huawei and other Chinese brands would be entirely banned for the average consumer, multiple governments are looking to minimize and ban the use of Huawei technology in their telecommunications and official work.
Additionally, Sweden and the UK have banned telecommunication companies from using Huawei devices on the 5G network, and are looking to phase out all Huawei devices by 2027.
In 2021, Lithuanian and Estonian cybersecurity experts advised against the use of network equipment from China’s Huawei, with the latter proposing a ban that’s yet to be approved by the local government:
The ban comes as part of an amendment to the Electronic Communications Act which must now receive approval from the country’s President Alar Kris. According to the CommsUpdate, the amendments are aimed at bringing Estonian legislation in line with EU standards.
In 2016, an immigration officer at the Hong Kong consulate in Canada denied immigration applications for two Chinese Huawei employees. The consulate implied that there was evidence of espionage not available to the public. The denial letter stated:
“… there are reasonable grounds to believe that you are a member of the inadmissible class of persons described in section 34(1)(f) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.”
Huawei and the Communist Party
In the 2018 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, FBI Director Chris Wray explained that much of the concern relate to the very unsettling relationship between all Chinese companies and the Chinese Communist Party.
Wray stated that the government was:
“… deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.”
The statement “beholden to foreign governments” is a reference to a Communisty Party law that requires all Chinese companies to work for State intelligence agencies if requested. The Communist Party often writes itself into company law, and there’s nothing the company or investors can do about it.
This means that if Huawei were to acquire control over a large part of the telecommunications market in the western world, the Chinese intelligence community could potentially have access to user data. It could also intercept, or even shut down, all communications from those devices.
The risk is apparently high enough that the Pentagon bans the sale or use of Huawei or ZTE phones on US military bases. Pentagon spokesman Maj. Dave Eastburn hinted that intelligence communities have substantial evidence of a serious threat, but that, “for security reasons, I can’t get into the technical aspects of potential threats.”
The Canadian government may not be as vocal as the US intelligence community on the matter, but there has long been talk of a similar ban on the use of these devices on Canadian military bases.
Does Huawei Really Spy on You?
Tech journalists writing that animosity toward Huawei is unfounded are overlooking considerable history. There is evidence that justifies avoiding the use of Huawei, KTE, or any other Chinese-made telecommunication products, including:
- A Washington Post review went over more than 100 confidential Huawei PowerPoint presentations and suggests that Huawei may be involved in the mass surveillance programs China is conducting.
- The CEO and founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, joined the Communist Party in 1978. He was also a high ranking member in the engineer corps for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
- In 2016, numerous Chinese phones, including one branded as “Blu”, were infected with third-party firmware from Shanghai Adups Technology. That software transmitted user data back to Chinese servers.
- In 2012, a group of former intelligence officers known as the Langley Intelligence Group Network (LIGNET) published a surprising report. According to the group, “a sensitive LIGNET source associated with Huawei” reported that Huawei had used an “undisclosed electronic backdoor that allowed it remote access to the company’s equipment without permission.”
- In 2014, a Huawei engineer was caught hacking a mobile tower in Andhra Pradesh. This compromised the Indian government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam’s (BSNL) network.
- A 2015 FBI report indicated that Huawei had been subsidized by the Chinese government to the tune of $100 billion. This begs the question, what does the Chinese government get in return for that substantial investment?
Some even claim that the Chinese government’s real interest isn’t national security, but obtaining trade secrets from Western companies.
Are You at Risk From Mass Surveillance?
Chinese devices aren’t the only privacy and security threats the average user is facing. There’s NSA spying, Facebook privacy failures, and constant phishing threats.
Even if you’re not involved with your country’s government, your personal data and information can still play a role in the grand scheme of things. It’s unnerving to think that yet another government might be trying to view your communications and your web usage. Because the malware is baked right into the firmware, it’s nearly impossible for a regular user to identify that it exists.
Consider a scenario where you may use a Hauwei or KTE phone to have a conversation with a friend or a work colleague. It could be a discussion about a business deal, a programming project you’re working on, or important business meetings. You could inadvertently pass along proprietary information to a foreign government without even realizing it.
Stepping Away From Chinese Devices
Avoiding phones made by Chinese manufacturers is a good start. But don’t forget that there are many other things you need to do to protect the security of your personal data.
Switching to more secure tools and services also helps. If you don’t want to go hunting for them, try a ready-made suite of services like Librem One, which is driven by open-source software.
Open-source hardware company Purism has released a collection of social privacy apps called Librem One.
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