It’s understandable people worry about Huawei phones. Recent news reports suggest the company either is, or could one day, use its network equipment to help China spy on or disrupt other nations.
If that’s true, then the company’s phones may also be weaponised.
Huawei phone owners can relax. Well, actually you can’t, read on to find out why. But, unless you work in an important strategic role, Huawei’s brand on your handset is not your biggest phone problem.
While it is possible China’s spies are interested in hearing you call home to say “I’m on my way” or knowing how often you watch cat videos, it’s unlikely.
Easier routes to your data
And anyway it would take a lot of resources and energy to get that information from your phone when there are easier tools at a spy’s disposal.
As another recent online snooping scandal shows, spies can and probably do buy the information they need from Facebook or Google.
We’ve heard that Russian trolls know enough about individuals to target them with vote-changing propaganda.
The level of data available from Facebook or Google is so intimate that motivated snoops can know things about you that none of your close acquaintances do.
They know if you are closeted. They can know you’re pregnant before your family does. They definitely know if you’re unhappy. They know your prejudices and you musical taste.
The most chilling revelation about Cambridge Analytica is that even seemingly disconnected data helps build a picture of your mood. It reveals what you are thinking.
A Huawei phone’s inherent insecurity has less to do with its country of origin, more to do with the Android operating system.
That means much of your personal information automatically goes back to Google and is for sale. It knows where you’ve been, what you bought, who you talk to and so on. We’re told the data is anonymous, but that doesn’t stop companies from being able to identify and target you.
You agreed to be spied on
You agreed to this when you bought an Android phone. You confirmed your agreement when you clicked on the permission button when setting up the phone software. You agreed all over again when you first used Google Maps. And so on.
If you’d like to double down on enabling malevolent snoops, install a Facebook or Instagram app. Once one of these is on your phone, little you do remains a mystery to anyone with curiosity and a budget. Facebook takes this snooping to another level.
Some people reading this will think it’s quaint and old fashioned to be concerned about personal privacy and security. Perhaps it is.
In most cases the nature of information gathered by Facebook and Google is more valuable to spooks than having a back door into your phone. And a lot less trouble.
One other thing to consider. Given that Facebook has, and continues, to act in bad faith, you can’t trust the company’s promise it keeps your data safe. Spies may be able to buy your Facebook data. State sponsored attackers probably know how to steal it.
All the above applies to any other Android phone whether it is made in China or South Korea.
If you worry about owning a Huawei phone, you should worry about it being an Android phone.
Things are more serious if you work in the military, in a strategic sector or deal with trade secrets. Spies are as likely to be interested in blueprints for cutting-edge engineering as they are in troop placements.
Another set of rules applies if you work in those roles. Foreign governments would like phone level access to your data. Even if there’s any truth in the allegations Huawei phones are only marginally more risky than, say, a Samsung phone. That said, extra prudence won’t hurt.
It may also pay to invest in extra security features. Samsung has a nice line of enterprise-grade phone security.
An iPhone looks safer, although Apple isn’t entirely squeaky clean in this department. While Apple gathers data, the company makes a virtue out of protecting its customers in a way the Android phone makers do not.
Apple’s business model is selling hardware and services. Google’s Android business model relies on collecting personal data. It’s that simple.
By all means be cynical about Apple’s claims. Skepticism is healthy. The world would be a safer place if more consumers thought these things through before buying devices. And also be aware that you can blow much of Apple’s protection the moment you install Facebook or any other pernicious data gathering app.
You have no business worrying about Huawei handing over your phone data to Chinese spies if you’re happy to hand over the same information to the likes of Facebook and Google. It’ll probably end up in the same hands either way.
Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions. He owns an iPhone and keeps tame Androids for testing purposes.