Top US officials, including the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA), expressed "deep concerns" over the risks associated with products including smartphones and telecommunications equipment from Chinese technology companies such as Huawei and ZTE, during a hearing on global threats and national security held by the US Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month.
"We're deeply concerned about the risks of allowing a company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don't share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks," FBI Director Chris Wray said.
NSA Director Mike Rogers added that this challenge is "only going to increase, not lessen, over time."
However, concerns over innovation at Chinese technology companies, which could challenge US tech giants by establishing its independent ecosystem, could be the real reason behind national security threat allegations from top US officials against Huawei and ZTE, Chinese experts argued.
"China is starting to lose its dominance as the global manufacturing base, as labor costs in the country continue to grow. But as the next step, Chinese innovation started to cause a lot of concerns in the United States, because a lot the hardware and software started to move away from the ecosystems created by Western companies. This could become a big concern [for US authorities]. On the surface, they worry about the smartphones you make. But what they're really worried is about the ecosystem that Chinese companies started to establish. This trend and the impact of this new Chinese ecosystem really worry the US officials," Zhu Wei, vice-chair of the Internet Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and an adviser to China’s Cyberspace Administration, told Sputnik.
On top of Google's open-source Android mobile operating system, Huawei's smartphones use a customized user interface known as the Huawei EMUI, which offers additional features such as unique user experience based on Huawei’s in-house artificial intelligence engine utilizing the company's Kirin mobile chipset.
The Beijing-based cybersecurity expert pointed out that the popularity of Apple products among Chinese consumers causes similar concerns over the security of the ecosystem created by the US tech giant.
"Cybersecurity has become a major concern for almost every nation in the world. And the key to cybersecurity has moved from the cyberspace to hardware, because the physical devices are the foundations of the cyberspace. As many people in China use their iPhones on a daily basis, they’re also using the mobile operating systems developed by Apple. There have already been a lot of discussions on whether Apple’s ecosystem has backdoors," Zhu said.
The security of iPhones and Apple's commitment to user privacy protection came under the public spotlight in February 2016, when the US tech giant refused the FBI’s request to write a new exploitive software to unlock an iPhone 5C used by one of the shooters in the deadly terrorist attack in December 2015 in San Bernardino.
After failing to get Apple to cooperate, the FBI went as far as to successfully obtain a court order from a US magistrate judge as part of its efforts to force Apple the create the software. In response, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a public statement, explaining the company’s reasons for opposing the court order. Before the scheduled hearing of the case, the FBI was able to unlock the iPhone in question through a third party, without assistance from Apple.
Apple’s firm defiance against a US court order won applause from rights activists advocating stronger user privacy protection. However, Zhu, the Beijing-based Chinese cybersecurity expert, was skeptical of Apple’s motives and called the case a "publicity stunt."
"I believe the case between FBI and Apple was simply a well-coordinated performance from both sides. That’s because there were already many different ways to unlock smartphones. And the FBI was able to do exactly that right before the scheduled hearing date. That’s why I suspect it was a pure performance. It was just a great PR campaign," he said.
The Chinese expert added that it is impossible for Chinese companies to pull off similar "PR stunts" to prove their "independence" from authorities, under the current legal framework in the country.
Bottleneck for Chinese Companies
US authorities have long accused Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE of having close ties to the country’s government, citing Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei’s previous experience as a researcher in the Chinese military.
In response to the latest allegation by top US officials, Huawei argued in a statement that the company "is trusted by governments and customers in 170 countries worldwide and poses no greater cybersecurity risk than any Information and Communications Technology (ICT) vendor."
US experts argued that concerns of US authorities resulted from the way Chinese companies work with the Chinese government.
"Chinese companies admit they turn over information to the Chinese government. It’s not a secret. Chinese brands right now are tied very closely to Beijing in many different ways. Except when they [Chinese companies] are dealing with the US government, they don’t even hide that this is happening. They explicitly say that we put the [Chinese Communist] Party Committee above the board of directors. There are understandable concerns from US politicians about how Chinese companies get access to US consumers’ personal data," Christopher Balding, an associate professor of business and economics at the Peking University HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, told Sputnik.
According to Chinese press reports, domestic prosecutors often obtain private chat messages from Chinese technology companies such as Tencent, which operates the popular messaging service WeChat, as evidence against suspects, even after the content was deleted from the suspects’ devices.
The US scholar explained that it was very difficult for the Chinese companies to change the negative perception about their relationship with Chinese authorities.
"In the short term, it’s very difficult for me to see a way around this. People believe that Apple and Facebook are not the US government. It could be just pure perception. They post information about government requests they get each year. Until Chinese companies like Huawei can demonstrate their independence from Beijing, by disclosing how many requests they get and how often they turn over information to the Chinese government, it’s going to be very difficult for consumers globally to trust Chinese phone makers or Chinese companies with their data," Balding said.
Which Government to Trust
In 2013, Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the massive online surveillance scheme the US government has in place. An additional report released by Snowden in 2014 detailed how the NSA specifically targeted Huawei and successfully infiltrated its network, obtaining access to the company’s email archives and the secret source code of its products.
Massive surveillance efforts by US authorities helped raise awareness among consumers on privacy and protecting their personal data, professor Balding suggested.
"Privacy and data protection is something consumers around the world are becoming increasingly sensitive about, even when dealing with their domestic technology, service or hardware providers. Most companies, including hardware makers or social media companies like Facebook, are behind where the consumers want to be, when it comes to the protection of their data," he said.
However, the US expert argued that the lack of civil liberty in China makes it difficult for Chinese companies to change their reputation when it comes to user privacy protection.
"It's true that if it’s not so much about which product, it's about which government you trust. There’s a distinction between China and the United States. If you want to criticize President [Donald] Trump, please go right ahead. No one is going to stop you. You definitely do not have such [civil] liberties in China. If some of the [US] brands we know about are not doing that great of a job [in protecting user data and privacy], Chinese companies are doing spectacularly bad jobs," he said.
The US expert added that Chinese regulators in Beijing and executives at Chinese tech companies need to understand that it is going to be very difficult to make a global sales pitch to international consumers, by appealing solely to trust.
The views and opinions expressed by the experts do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.