Over the last year or so, a lot of claims about the Chinese government using phones to spy on people of interest have surfaced. Where does this concern stem from and could phones really be turned against us for spying purposes?
Why the Concern Over Chinese Phones Spying?
The concerns surrounding Chinese phones spying on their users stem from the perceived influence that the Chinese government has over Chinese companies. As stated in a news article published on Australia’s ABC website, “fears are growing that Chinese companies are no longer free from Chinese Communist Party control”. It’s the fact that major Chinese phone and telecoms manufacturing companies seem to have strong links to the Chinese government that has countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand worried.
China is well known for using technology to keep social control of its citizens. However, could they try and control users elsewhere by using Chinese manufactured phones to spy on us? The governments of the above-mentioned countries obviously think so, as they have blocked companies operating in their countries from using telecom equipment manufactured by Huawei and ZTE, citing security concerns.
Europe, although not banning Huawei and ZTE products, has decided to setup up its own Cloud Service, for example, to make themselves more independent from Chinese providers.
Ownership of Huawei and ZTE
Much has been said about who actually owns two of China’s main phone and telecoms manufacturing companies currently exporting to the West, namely Huawei and ZTE. So, who actually owns these companies?
Originally, ZTE was a state-owned company under the control of the Shenzhen municipal government. In 1997 it was listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and became China’s first state‑owned company to go public. However, this does not mean that ZTE is now privately owned. ZTE’s largest shareholder is a state-owned entity called “Zhongxingxin”, which owns over 30% of the company.
As for Huawei, it claims to be an “employee‑owned” company, but is this true? Research conducted in April this year by Christopher Balding of Fulbright University Vietnam and Donald Clark of George Washington University Law School concludes that Huawei is approximately 1% owned by Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and 99% owned by an entity called a Trade Union Committee. According to Balding and Clark: “Given the public nature of trade unions in China, if the ownership stake of the trade union committee is genuine, and if the trade union and its committee function as trade unions generally function in China, then Huawei may be deemed effectively state‑owned.”
Furthermore, Huawei’s founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei has ties to the Chinese Military, having worked for the People’s Liberation Army Research Institute. This fact makes people suspect Huawei’s phones are being used for spying.
Should We Only Worry About Chinese Phones Spying?
An article published by the ABC earlier this year asks the question: “… 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.”
With the Apple iPhone, a phone which is considered to be one of the most secure in the world, also being manufactured in China, is our privacy safe using any phone? Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this question. Kate Fazzini, technology reporter for CNBC has stated: “Nothing is secure, pretty much anything can be broken. It just depends on the motivation of the person doing the breaking…”.