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The U.S. Government Should Show Its Work

Washington is suspicious of Huawei smartphones—but it won’t tell us why.

Huawei smartphone
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Image by Huawei Mate 9.

Many people in the United States—including me—walk around every day carrying a smartphone that was made in China. It’s been this way for a while. In fact, in 2012, CNet ran an article titled “Are Any Smartphones Not Made in China?” (Its conclusion: “[Y]es, but not many and probably not for much longer.”) But despite the fact that this has been the status quo for a long time now, the U.S. government is apparently not prepared to trust phones made by Huawei, one of China’s largest tech companies.

Huawei has been trying to make inroads in the U.S. smartphone market, which is currently dominated by Apple and Samsung. Huawei is the third-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, after those companies, and it shipped 153 million smartphones in 2017, but it has struggled in the U.S. market, where most phones are sold through mobile carriers like AT&T. Earlier this week, Huawei’s planned partnership with AT&T fell through following pressure from the Senate and House intelligence committees and conversations with National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and former FBI Director James Comey. The officials apparently warned AT&T that Huawei’s technology might be used to aid Chinese espionage efforts and suggested that the partnership—which would presumably have brought Huawei phones to more U.S. consumers—could be harmful for security. Some reports indicate that the U.S. government has also intervened to try to prevent a similar partnership between Huawei and Verizon.

Just as the government offered no evidence when it very publicly cut ties with Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab due to concerns about Russian espionage, very little information has been made public about why exactly Congress, the FBI, and the NSA believe that Huawei’s phones are insecure. So much for my hopes that 2018 might usher in a new era of the U.S. government sharing more specific details about cybersecurity threats!

In some ways, the move to block Huawei’s partnership with AT&T, and perhaps Verizon as well, is more startling than the government’s decision not to use Kaspersky products. One was a decision about what technology the government itself trusted and was willing to install on its own systems. The other was about what technologies should be made available to U.S. consumers through their mobile phone carriers.

For the government to decide that it wanted to make it difficult for anyone in the U.S. to purchase that technology seems genuinely strange. It could, I suppose, indicate that there is very damning evidence that all Huawei phones are tools for nonstop espionage by the Communist Party of China. But in that case, wouldn’t it make more sense for the government to make some clearer statement directly to consumers about the risks and maybe even take some stronger action to prevent Huawei technology from being sold in the United States? After all, pressuring U.S. carriers not to partner with Huawei does not actually make it impossible for U.S. consumers to purchase Huawei phones—you can buy a phone that’s not sold through your carrier (though you probably don’t). Huawei also just unveiled a new router at CES—are we supposed to assume that those, and all other Huawei products for that matter, are also under the control of the Chinese government? And how about all the other smartphones and computers coming out of China? Are we supposed to believe that the Chinese government is intent on building espionage back doors into technology at all costs but only when it comes to Huawei products? It’s hard not to suspect that the goal here is aimed more at damaging Huawei’s chances of becoming competitive in the U.S. smartphone market than improving security.

If the motivations of the U.S. government are confusing here, then so too are the motivations it appears to be ascribing to the Chinese government. The presumption seems to be that China would risk ruining the international reputation of one of its biggest and most successful companies for the purposes of collecting espionage information that it could very likely intercept through other means, if it so desired. The United States has charged officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with conducting illegal acts of cyberespionage in the past, and not a single one of the espionage efforts described in the indictment involves any Huawei technology—or, indeed, back doors built into any Chinese technologies. Instead, they involved a lot of phishing emails that delivered malware via innocuous-looking attachments, something we would presumably still be susceptible to whether or not we were using Huawei phones.

Certainly, there have been signs in the past that China’s government might be interested in conducting espionage via technology. In November 2017, for instance, security contractors discovered phone software written by Shanghai Adups Technology Co. that was installed on some Huawei products (among other Android phones) and monitored users’ activity, possibly for the purposes of espionage or possibly just to conduct advertising analytics. It’s hard to know what to make of this revelation, or how concerned we should be about it, given how little we know about why this software was installed, but there’s no evidence that points to Huawei, in particular, being responsible for it.

And of course, the U.S. government also shares some of China’s interests in espionage—and, at least in the past, those interests have even extended to Huawei technology. In 2014, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had compromised Huawei’s systems for two reasons: to figure out what ties the company had to the Chinese government and so that the NSA could itself take advantage of Huawei’s products to spy on the people who bought them.

This week, Huawei’s consumer business group CEO, Richard Yu, presented his company’s new Mate 10 Pro phone at CES in Las Vegas to an audience that is unlikely to have many opportunities to buy it, now that the AT&T deal has been squashed. At the end of his presentation, the Verge reports, he directly addressed the failed partnership, saying, “It’s a big loss for us, and also for carriers, but the more big loss is for consumers, because consumers don’t have the best choice.” He may well be right to feel sorry for us, not necessarily because we can’t buy his phones but because our government increasingly seems to subscribe to the misguided notion that technology designed and manufactured outside our own borders is inherently dangerous—even though almost all of our technology is put together somewhere else. Ironically, refusing to trust tech companies based in other countries is a move straight out of China’s playbook, and Yu’s right that it’s ultimately a loss for everyone.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of CES 2018.

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Illustration depicting a colorful group of people using an array of mobile devices