Few Americans give much consideration to who makes their cellphones. Apple’s fans trust their iPhones. Samsung has its own following. The rest of the players in the game are struggling for a piece of the market. But now the heads of six major US intelligence agencies have issued a warning against one major brand of phones.
The Chinese tech giant Huawei has found itself in the cross-hairs. During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, the heads of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the director of national intelligence all spoke about the threats that could be posed from the company.
FBI Director Chris Wray said the 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.”
Doing so would allow “the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information. And it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.”
Huawei was founded by a former engineer in China’s People’s Liberation Army. Many see the company as a front for the Chinese government. Huawei has been banned from bidding on US government contracts, which has slowed the company’s desire to secure a stronger foothold in domestic retail in the US.
“Although Huawei started life as a telecoms firm,” the Verge writes, “creating hardware for communications infrastructure, the company’s smartphones have proved incredibly successful in recent years. Last September, it even surpassed Apple as the world’s second biggest smartphone maker, behind Samsung.”
With the volume of production and worldwide popularity, it is easy to see how the company is poised to compete in the US. Yet doing so requires a partnership with a service provider.
“Last month, Huawei planned to launch its new Mate 10 Pro flagship in the US through AT&T,” the Verge notes, “but the carrier pulled out of the deal at the last minute, reportedly due to political pressure. The decision prompted Huawei’s CEO Richard Yu to go off-script during a speech at CES, describing the move as a ‘big loss’ for the company, but a bigger loss for consumers.”
The underling fear is that these phones may be able to spy on users on behalf of the Chinese government. That speculation has driven some US lawmakers to look for stronger restrictions. Some lawmakers are considering an all out ban on the phones in the US.
Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke about the fear during Tuesday’s hearing. “The focus of my concern today is China, and specifically Chinese telecoms like Huawei and ZTE, that are widely understood to have extraordinary ties to the Chinese government.”
Huawei spoke with CNBC about the concerns. “Huawei is aware of a range of U.S. government activities seemingly aimed at inhibiting Huawei’s business in the U.S. market. Huawei is trusted by governments and customers in 170 countries worldwide and poses no greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT vendor, sharing as we do common global supply chains and production capabilities.”