The heads of six major US intelligence agencies have warned that American citizens shouldn’t use products and services made by Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE. According to a report from CNBC, the intelligence chiefs made the recommendation during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. The group included the heads of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the director of national intelligence.
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.”
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 Samsung.
But the company has never been able to make inroads in the lucrative American market, a failure which is in part due to hostility from the US government. Last month, Huawei planned to launch its new Mate 10 Pro flagship in the US through AT&T, but the carrier pulled out of the deal at the last minute, reportedly due to political pressure. The decision prompted Huawei’s CEO Richard Yu to go off-script during a speech at CES, describing the move as a “big loss” for the company, but a bigger loss for consumers.
Huawei is still trying to sell the 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 and ZTE, that are widely understood to have extraordinary ties to the Chinese government.”
In response to these comments, a spokesperson for Huawei told CNBC: ”Huawei is aware of a range of U.S. government activities seemingly aimed at inhibiting Huawei’s business in the U.S. market. Huawei is trusted by governments and customers in 170 countries worldwide and poses no greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT vendor, sharing as we do common global supply chains and production capabilities.”
ZTE also issued a statement on the comments, saying: “As a publicly traded company, we are committed to adhering to all applicable laws and regulations of the United States, work with carriers to pass strict testing protocols, and adhere to the highest business standards. [...] ZTE takes cybersecurity and privacy seriously and remains a trusted partner to our US suppliers, US customers and the people who use our [...] products.”
Update February 15th: Updated to include comment from ZTE.