Politics not privacy fears behind Huawei spying claim by US

The company’s success is due to its smartphones being reliable and well-designed. There is no evidence that its products are being used for espionage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 5:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 5:40am

Mention of the name Huawei, China’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, is like a warning signal to the US intelligence community and its political allies.

They perceive the smartphone giant as a national security threat because of its alleged links to the Chinese government and have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to keep it out of the American market. Facebook’s admission that it jointly developed apps to enable sharing of user information with dozens of firms, Huawei among them, was therefore bound to prompt alarm and accusations of negligence.

But given the realities of online communications, such sentiments are more about politicking and protectionism than privacy.

Facebook was quick to start rolling back its agreements with the companies, even though there is no evidence that data was collected or stored. The social media behemoth had little choice after the scandal involving consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which brought heavy criticism for allowing the harvesting of personal data that had the potential to influence voting.

But the latest incident is different, being about major tech companies cooperating to integrate technology to maximise their appeal in a highly competitive industry.

American security officials and lawmakers do not always see it that way when Chinese companies are involved. They have a particular problem with Huawei and ZTE, which they claim have government ties and, as a result, are involved in spying. There is less concern about other major tech firms including Lenovo, Xiaomi and BBK Electronics, which markets the smartphone brands Oppo, OnePlus and Vivo; they are not determined to have such links. The Pentagon last month banned the sale of Huawei and ZTE devices to the US military, and in February six intelligence community chiefs advised Americans against buying the companies’ products.

US President Donald Trump has made limiting Chinese accessto American technology a key part of his trade dispute with Beijing. ZTE, which broke US rules on trading with Iran and North Korea, has become a flashpoint and the telecoms firm last week struck a deal under which it will pay US$1 billion in penalties and operate with the oversight of a US-appointed compliance team.

But Huawei has not violated US regulations and its products are no more a security risk than its competitors. Only Americans worry; such fears are not heard elsewhere, which is why Huawei smartphones are the world’s third most popular by sales volume behind Samsung and Apple.

Huawei’s success is due to its smartphones being reliable and well-designed. There is no evidence that its products are being used for spying. Disapproval of the company can too easily be seen as politically motivated and aimed at protecting domestic competition.