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Which should we be more worried about, Apple or Huawei?

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Updated

January 19, 2019 07:45:48

A flurry of media coverage around Huawei’s security risks over the past year may have put some consumers off buying one of their latest high-tech smartphones.

Key points:

  • The concern around Huawei stems from Beijing’s influence over Chinese companies
  • Fears growing that Chinese companies are no longer free from CCP control
  • Huawei says the company would refuse any Beijing request for customer information

While Huawei has become one of the biggest names in technology next to Samsung and Apple, the brand has also come under increasing scrutiny around the globe over its ties with the Chinese Government.

Australia is among the Western countries that have banned the Chinese tech giant from building their 5G networks on national security grounds.

Oxford University has also reportedly suspended all new research grants and donations from Huawei in light of public concerns.

The decision comes as US prosecutors are believed to be investigating the possible theft of trade secrets by the Chinese company, and after Canada arrested Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou for violating US sanctions on Iran last month.

As the international intelligence community has become more concerned about Huawei, so too have consumers the world over.

But do Huawei phones really pose that much more of a security risk than iPhones in the face of China’s potential espionage threat? After all, they’re both made in China.

‘Chinese companies will do as they are told’

As it turns out, experts largely agree that the concern stems more from Beijing’s influence over Chinese companies, rather than where the phones are made.

Frank Cilluffo, director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security, told the ABC the nature of the relationship between Chinese companies and Beijing was “fundamentally different” to the relationship between US companies and Washington.

And, according to a report from the Australian Financial Review on the Wednesday, even the Foreign Investment Review Board no longer believes private companies in China are free of Communist Party control.

The AFR citied a senior figure with direct knowledge of the FIRB board’s thinking saying that China’s National Intelligence Law had “done away with the distinction between private and state-owned companies”.

“Chinese companies will do as they are told,” the anonymous source said.

However, Huawei has repeatedly tried to allay fears with its founder Ren Zhengfei this week saying the company would “definitely” refuse a government request for customer information.

Professor Clive Williams from the Australian National University’s Centre for Military and Security Law told the ABC that to his knowledge, no evidence has yet been provided of Huawei conducting espionage.

“Much of the security concern about Huawei is driven by rival US companies and their senior employees who have worked in the US intelligence community,” he said.

“Huawei is ahead of the field in 5G research so it could be an uncheckable way of reining it in and limiting its market share.

“Obviously in an extreme adversarial or conflict situation Huawei would do what it was told to do by China, but then so would American companies if prevailed upon by the US Government.”

Persons of interest monitored irrespective of phone brand

While iPhone and Huawei devices are both assembled in China, Mr Cilluffo said he believes there are differences that reduce the risk for iPhones.

“Apple may make use of Chinese manufacturing facilities but the company scrutinises and supervises the security of its own supply chain, and possesses the technical expertise to identify and remedy associated vulnerabilities and shortcomings,” he said.

Mr Cilluffo said the unprecedented action by the Five Eyes alliance — drawing together the intelligence services of the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia — and steps taken by many other countries against Huawei was “not for nothing”.

“There is a wealth of information contained in our smartphones that amounts to a treasure trove for both companies and especially foreign intelligence services, particularly hostile ones,” he said.

“Against this background, consumers are right to be concerned about Huawei mobiles, as these concerns are widely shared by intelligence officials the world over.”

But Professor Williams said Western users of Huawei phones probably do not need to be unduly concerned.

He said most countries — including China — could monitor the phones of persons of security interest “irrespective of the phone brand”.

The Chinese Government is widely known to have cracked down on Uyghurs, activists and dissidents.

Tom Uren, a visiting fellow in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said he thought it was highly unlikely that every Huawei phone is listening by default and reporting back.

“What I think becomes more of a concern is if you think your profile is high enough that the Chinese state would actually actively take interest,” he said.

“At that point, the brand of phone you’re buying is not the main problem.

“The main problem is that you’ve got a state that’s actively trying to get access to you.”

Whether your phone runs on iOS or Android matters

For Mr Uren, the bigger difference between Huawei and iPhones is which operating system they’re running on — Android or iOS — because of their “different philosophy” rather than the phone itself.

“I think that if a manufacturer wanted to compromise a phone, doing it in hardware is the least likely way,” he said.

Mr Uren said while no phones are perfect, there was a general consensus that iPhones were more secure.

Apple’s iOS has higher levels of scrutiny over what apps are allowed to be download in the App Store compared to Android which is an open source operating system.

Speaking at the EU privacy conference in Brussels last October, Apple chief executive Tim Cook sought to distinguish his company from tech firms that collect large swathes of data like Alphabet’s Google and Facebook.

According to a Bloomberg report at the time, Mr Cook had also previously criticised the companies for basing their business models on harvesting personal information for advertising, while saying that Apple tried to collect as little as possible.

However, this has not prevented American intelligence officials from warning that Chinese and Russian spies often listened in on US President Donald Trump when he uses his personal iPhone to chat to friends or send out a tweet.

China jokingly suggested that Mr Trump could use a Huawei mobile instead if he was worried about foreign eavesdropping.

The announcement of Apple’s iCloud service partnering with a Chinese government-owned company to operate cloud servers in the country also sparked privacy concerns among Chinese citizens last January.

Topics:

science-and-technology,

computers-and-technology,

internet-technology,

security-intelligence,

defence-and-national-security,

world-politics,

china,

united-states,

asia,

australia

First posted

January 19, 2019 07:23:45

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