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Why is the U.S. government worried about these Chinese smartphones?
We’re talking about the Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei (pronounced Wow Way). Huawei is the No. 2 phone maker in the world and has been desperately trying to break into the U.S. market for years.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing this week, six top U.S. intelligence officials advised Americans not to use products or services from Huawei. Those providing the warning included the heads of the CIA, FBI and NSA.
During his testimony, FBI Director Chris Wray said 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.” He added that this would provide “the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information. And it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.”
The good news is that some U.S. carriers have already made the decision not to sell Huawei phones. Verizon and AT&T both dropped plans to sell Huawei phones earlier this year after being warned by the U.S. government of security concerns.
Huawei is still trying to sell the $799 Mate 10 Pro unlocked in the US, but this effort seems to have pushed the company to desperate measures — including getting users to write fake reviews for the handset.
US lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would ban government employees from using Huawei and ZTE phones altogether. During Tuesday’s hearing, Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “The focus of my concern today is China, and specifically Chinese telecoms like Huawei, that are widely understood to have extraordinary ties to the Chinese government.”
Ever since a 2012 investigative report—in which Huawei was wholly uncooperative—lawmakers have been warning about the potential dangers of using Huawei phones, but with the company on the verge of a U.S. breakout, the rhetoric has been ramped up considerably.
These warnings are nothing new. The US intelligence community has long been wary of Huawei, which was founded by a former engineer in China’s People’s Liberation Army and has been described by US politicians as “effectively an arm of the Chinese government.” This caution led to a ban on Huawei bidding for US government contracts in 2014, and it’s now causing problems for the company’s push into consumer electronics.
Although Huawei started life as a telecoms firm, 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 #1 smartphone maker Samsung.
When asked whether they would recommend U.S. citizens buy phones from these manufacturers, none said they would, with committee member Sen. Mark Warner adding, “We need to make sure that this is not a new way for China to gain access to sensitive technology.”
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