Are Huawei and ZTE really a national security risk?
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Are Huawei and ZTE really a national security risk?

CHINESE smartphone manufacturer Huawei announced Thursday the Australian government has banned them from providing 5G technology to the country, despite the company being a “world leader” in the next generation connectivity.

Fellow Chinese communications firm ZTE was also included in the ban.

The reasons given were national security concerns. And Australia is far from the first country to voice such worries. Both the US and UK intelligence communities have raised similar fears that has dealt a blow to the tech giant as they try to make their mark on the western markets.

So, is there cause for concern? And are Huawei and ZTE really all that dangerous?

SEE ALSO: US panel: China tech giants pose security threat

What are the experts saying?

The Australian government said on Thursday that national security regulations typically applied to telecom carriers would now be extended to equipment suppliers.

Firms “who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government” would leave the nation’s network vulnerable to unauthorised access or interference, and presented a security risk, the statement said.

But Australia is just the latest in a line of governments clamping down on the manufacturers.

Earlier in the year, Senior US intelligence officials advised consumers to avoid buying both Huawei and ZTE phones.

The US government is “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,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing back in February.

A Bill has also been proposed that would ban government employees from using the phones.

SEE ALSO: China is winning the tech arms race against the United States

In short, intelligence agencies are worried Huawei might be spying on us through its products, specifically its telecommunications equipment.

In Britain, an official report last month said technical issues with Huawei’s equipment had opened the country’s telecom networks to new risks, warning that it had “only limited assurance” that the company’s telecoms kit posed no threat to national security. Jitters are now spreading to continental Europe, too, with some intelligence agencies signalling concern about Chinese cyber-espionage.

But this is nothing new. Shunning Huawei and ZTE goes way back as far as 2008 when the US government blocked bids by Huawei to buy US telecommunications companies.

Why are they so worried about Huawei and ZTE?

You’ve probably noticed that there are plenty of Chinese phone companies who aren’t getting this level of hassle from international governments. Lenovo, Xiaomi and BBK (owner of Oppo and Vivo) have been allowed to operate pretty freely.

Huawei and ZTE have both been singled out due to their demonstrable links to the Chinese government.

Huawei’s founder and CEO held a high rank in the engineer corps of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and ZTE is partly owned by the Chinese government.

Authorities fear networking devices made by Huawei and ZTE could be used to spy on companies, governments and citizens. It’s possible they could even be used to sabotage networks and infrastructure in the event of war with China.

This presents an increased – and seemingly unacceptable – level of risk for military and intelligence agencies. Why play with fire, right?

Where’s the evidence?

Well, here’s one of the reasons why China’s not taking the news too well – there is no evidence. Or at least none that the public are allowed to know about.

In truth, all smartphones spy on you to some extent.

“This is not specific to ZTE and Huawei, but is something that spans the industry,” Andrew Blaich, a security researcher with Lookout, told Tom’s Guide. “The level of risk varies from device to device and manufacturer to manufacturer.”

While little evidence has surfaced to show Huawei or ZTE are any worse at spying on their customers than other brands, there is solid evidence of industrial espionage.

SEE ALSO: Why the West shouldn’t underestimate China’s innovation prowess

Since 2003, Huawei has been accused of stealing trade secrets from Cisco, Motorola and T-Mobile, resulting in a flurry of lawsuits and settlements. Huawei and ZTE have even accused each other of stealing secrets.

So is it all politics then?

Huawei’s rebutted the move, saying in a statement on Friday the Australian government’s decision was “politically motivated.” And they may have a point.

The company’s exclusion from Australia’s mobile network comes at a time of particularly strained relations between Australia and China.

Ties between Australia and China hit a low after Canberra passed laws aimed at thwarting Chinese influence in domestic affairs and also over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

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