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How US government fears about Chinese tech affect you

Spy chiefs warn of danger posed by companies from China

This article originally appeared on ABACUS
In a Senate hearing, US intelligence chiefs expressed their doubts about allowing American citizens to buy smartphones made by Chinese companies, including Huawei and ZTE. Let’s break down what this means and how it will affect you.

Why the warning?

Officials are worried about alleged ties between companies like Huawei and ZTE and the Chinese government. FBI head Christopher Wray said Chinese companies with access to the US telecom network may “maliciously modify or steal information” and “conduct undetected espionage.”

How does this affect me? 

If you’re trying to get your hands on a Chinese handset, it could get harder.

Huawei, the world’s third largest smartphone maker after Apple and Samsung, is currently without a US carrier as a partner: Both AT&T and Verizon scrapped plans last month to sell its phones, reportedly due to pressure from federal regulators. You can still purchase an unlocked Huawei device from retailers like Best Buy and Amazon -- but 90% of all smartphone sales in the US are through carriers.
For American consumers, ZTE is a more familiar name. It’s the fourth biggest smartphone maker in the US, with handsets available on AT&T and Sprint. But it’s not escaping scrutiny: Last week, two senators introduced a bill that would ban government officials from using ZTE, as well as Huawei phones.
And all of this comes as OnePlus explores potential carrier partners to bring more of its smartphones to the US. This could complicate that.

What about other devices?

It’s not just smartphone makers that are raising concerns among U.S. authorities.

Last year it was revealed that DJI, the world’s leading manufacturer of consumer drones, was accused by a US government office of feeding sensitive data to the Chinese government. The company has denied the allegation, but it’s keeping a close eye on any development.

Meanwhile, the US Army has imposed an internal ban on DJI drones -- but before that, it was looking into buying a series of DJI Phantom and Mavic Pro drones.

Beyond that, Wray said the FBI is worried by Chinese firms sweeping up US startups that can offer useful technology for spies and military operatives back home.

Rocket engines and military robots probably aren’t useful for regular folks like you and me. But as the US Army’s DJI ban shows, the boundary between consumer goods and national security is becoming increasingly blurry.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How US government fears about Chinese tech affect you