Categories
mobile telecommunications

Huawei’s brand is the least of your phone problems

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…

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.

Insecurities

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.

Risk management

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. 

Categories
productivity

We’re scared of online threats, don’t do enough about it

InternetNZ research shows 94 percent of New Zealanders are concerned about the security of their personal data. Yet despite the high level of fear, researchers found only a fraction of users take practical steps to protect themselves from risk. 

Only one-third of New Zealanders surveyed used account authentication, either two-factor or multi-factor. Meanwhile less than half of those questioned make regular data backups. 

There is also concern about children being able to see inappropriate content online. The survey found this concerns 92 percent of those questioned. 

There are positives. Nine out of ten respondents told InternetNZ the benefits of the internet outweigh the negatives. When asked to be more specific about those benefits, 83 percent named having access to information. 

Commenting on the survey results, Andrew Cushen, InternetNZ’s outreach and engagement officer says: “As more and more of our lives are spent on the Internet, being able to access information online has now become a necessity. 

“This is why it’s so important that we continue to try and close digital divides in New Zealand. Every New Zealander deserves the opportunity to harness the power of the Internet”. 

Cushen says the fact that many people are not protecting themselves online is something we need to improve if New Zealanders are to stay safe online. 

He says: “We all need to take personal responsibility for our safety on the internet”. 

Cushen says the concern over inappropriate content is a reminder that families should talk to each other about the different types of content and what to do if they come across anything upsetting. He says; “We need to ensure that people of all ages feel safe on the Internet.”

The data comes from an annual survey commissioned by InternetNZ and conducted by Colmar Brunton. The research examines local internet attitudes.

Categories
telecommunications

The threat to Huawei’s Android phone brand

Huawei is no longer welcome as a phone network build in some western democracies.

There’s an unproven suspicion the company is already spying for China. Even if it is not spying, western governments are wary of depending on a Chinese firm for critical infrastructure.

Sooner or later those fears about Huawei network equipment will spill over into phone handsets.

Negative headlines and ministerial statements here and overseas have already damaged Huawei’s brand. It could get worse.

Implications

What could fear of Huawei mean for the phone market?

It may lead to reduced choice, higher prices and less innovation. Mind you, the second two are already happening, with or with a Huawei effect.

Last year Huawei was the fourth most popular phone brand in New Zealand. It sits behind Samsung, Apple and Vodafone. Huawei had roughly ten percent of the market by unit numbers. The top two brands dominate by a long way.

Because Vodafone-branded handsets are at the low-end of the market, Huawei was number three in terms of revenue. Huawei’s share of revenue was also about ten percent. This number matters more than unit sales.

Huawei fast growing

Also important, Huawei was by far the fastest-growing phone brand in New Zealand both in terms of unit sales and revenue growth. It took market share from both Apple and Samsung.

Huawei plays an important role in New Zealand’s market. It puts pressure on the top two brands and ensures Android phone buyers have a plausible alternative to Samsung.

New Zealand is one of Huawei’s better markets. The phones are invisible in the US. In Australia Huawei is number five in the market, but with a much smaller share. Apple sells roughly 18 phones for every phone sold by Huawei. Samsung sells about 12.

Both Australia and the US have been wary of Huawei network hardware for some time.

Fear spill over

Of course other factors are at play, but it’s reasonable to assume those network security fears have something of a knock-on effect in the handset market.

It’s likely something similar will happen here.

Phone buyers might reason that if ministers and intelligence agencies are concerned about snooping at the network level, the same might apply to Huawei mobile phones, tablets and personal computers.

At the same time, people might look askance when a phone owner reveals they own a Huawei handset. Phone snobbery is real enough already, this is another level.

Employers might decide they don’t want employees doing business on a Huawei handset. There doesn’t need to be an outright ban, a lot of frowning will have a chilling effect.

Retail

It may even become harder to buy a Huawei phone. If things get worse, it’s possible the telcos will want to distance themselves from the brand. That means you either won’t see the handsets in Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees stores or they will be relegated to almost under-the-counter status.

Huawei may decide it needs to ramp up its marketing to calm customer fears. It’s possible, the company is good at talking to the industry, but consumer communication has not been a Huawei strength.

Who wins?

If consumers and retailers turn their back on Huawei, it will take price pressure off rival phone makers. Samsung will benefit most. Huawei has been snapping at Samsung’s heels for some time. Huawei Android phones tend to be as good as Samsung models, but cost a little less.

Apple stands to benefit too. We’ll come back to that point in another post.

There’s every possibility that unease about Huawei phones will spread to other Chinese brands.

Oppo has made a splash here, but the brand needs to work hard to explain why it should not be tarred with the same brush.

After all, if the Chinese government can bully its most prestigious technology company into handing over data, stomping on a smaller player will be simple.

All of this is speculation. It’s possible the scare goes away. It could be that New Zealanders don’t follow Americans and Australians in treating the Huawei brand with caution or suspicion. But on overseas evidence, we should prepare for a phone market shake up.

In my next post about Huawei, I’m going to look at why spying-related suspicion about the company’s phone handsets is misplaced.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions.

Categories
telecommunications

Huawei: what no-one wants to tell you

There’s more to the Western restrictions on Huawei than meets the eye.

Behind the headline news story there’s another story. It’s one you don’t hear or see in the mainstream media.

There has been plenty about Australian and US claims the company spies.

You may also have heard something about a possible hidden kill switch that could allow Huawei or the Chinese government to disrupt or even halt communications.

This week US prosecutors filed criminal charges against the firm.

These actions, and others, may or may not be justified. It’s hard to know for sure.

Protectionism

At least some of the ill-will towards Huawei comes down to trade protectionism. US prosecutors launched their latest action days before the trade negotiations. That timing is no accident.

The scare stories will frighten off some customers even if, in the long term, we find out it was all a false alarm.

Huawei’s reputation is already damaged. Mission accomplished. It’s the ultimate non-tariff trade barrier.

Let’s put all these matters aside for the moment and look at something else.

Huawei too good for its own good

Many in the West fear Huawei because the company is too good at its core business.

By the way, Huawei’s core business is not making mobile phones. The big money comes from designing and building communications networks. This includes old school telephone, fibre broadband and cellular networks.

Huawei has a clear technology lead over its main rivals in this sector. Off the top of my head, I’d say from what I’ve seen and heard from Huawei, the company is anything up to 18 months ahead of rivals.

The company also has a cost advantage over its competitors. Whether you think this is a fair cost advantage or not is neither here nor there. When has business success even been about fairness?

China’s tech success story

This adds up to Huawei having better technology, better products and services at a lower cost. That’s a hard trifecta to beat. It sums up the problem.

A decade ago almost no-one in the West had heard of Huawei. Companies like Nokia, Cisco, Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent dominated network equipment.

Since then Ericsson dropped out of sight. Nokia merged with Alcatel-Lucent. Cisco is not the force it once was.

In round numbers, Huawei accounts for a third of the global telecommunication network equipment market. It is the biggest IT network equipment company with about a quarter of the market.

Big in 5G

Before these recent actions, Huawei looked set to win the lion’s share of contracts to build next generation 5G mobile networks.

Huawei’s total market share continues to grow at the expense of its rivals. It is already the dominant telecommunications network hardware player. If things were to continue as they have in the past, in a few years Huawei would be unassailable. It is not unreasonable to talk about a potential monopoly.

That’s what scares Western governments. Telecommunications networks are strategic infrastructure. They are as important, some say more important, than roads, railways or shipping lanes.

Forget kill switches

Forget kill switches. Allowing one company to dominate strategic infrastructure is bad full stop. It’s like the plot of a James Bond movie.

Older readers might remember the computer business when IBM was the only game in town. Less ancient readers might remember when Microsoft and Intel called the shots in PCs. This could be worse.

Then you get to the part where we mention that Huawei is a Chinese company. China’s emergence as a global power has taken longer than Huawei’s rise to the top of network hardware. It threatens many people and governments on various levels.

Huawei is a threat even if China doesn’t pull its strings. Add this to fears about China’s ambitions and you have a potent mix.

Geopolitics

In that case, dominating critical infrastructure isn’t about business, laws or trade disputes. It becomes a geopolitical challenge.

There’s another aspect to this. Huawei is a Chinese national champion. The company reflects China’s prestige. It’s not a direct comparison, but is some ways Huawei is the Apple of China’s eye.

Diminishing Huawei’s prestige has to be part of what’s going on.

This whole episode is far from over. It may take us into places no-one expected.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions.

Categories
computing

Unisys Security Index: Commercial digital identity services face fear barrier

New Zealanders are happy using digital identities to deal with government agencies.

Yet, according to the 2018 Unisys Security Index survey, we’re less happy using similar digital identities for financial transactions, paying for things and other commercial applications.

Take the idea of having an emergency button a phone so you can send your location to the police if you’re in trouble. Unisys found 84 percent of New Zealanders like the idea. Only eight percent do not.

Would you support the following

Medical devices reporting to doctors

How about having medical devices send alerts to doctors if there’s a significant change in readings? This could be a pacemaker noticing something happening with a heart or a blood sugar monitor seeing a spike.

The survey found eight times as many New Zealanders like the idea as those who don’t. It appears that we trust the police and health professionals.

A different picture emerges when there’s money involved. Unisys found that almost two-thirds of New Zealanders do not like the idea of personal health trackers reporting information to insurance companies, even if it might mean lower premiums. A quarter are in favour of the idea while the rest are undecided.

Likewise only half the population likes the idea of being able to make bank or credit card payments from a watch. When Unisys asked the same people why they didn’t support sharing personal data, there was a consistent pattern in their responses.

No compelling reason to share

In most cases the answer is “there is not a compelling enough reason for them to have this data.”

When money is involved respondents expressed misgivings about data security. This seems a reasonable response given the number of high-profile news stories about data security breaches. It means that organisations hoping to do business this way have their work cut out convincing customers their services are safe and that their requests for data are always benign.

Andrew Whelan, Unisys vice-president Commercial industries for Asia-Pacific says the last year has been relatively calm in terms of New Zealand politics and natural disasters. So our security focus has been elsewhere. He says: “…Local and global data breaches dominated media headlines and impacted many of us personally – so data security is top of mind.

Government yes, commerce not so much

“The results indicate that New Zealanders are more likely to embrace digital identities to engage with government organisations, especially where there are clear benefits of increased convenience or security.

“But in the banking sector, concerns about data security are hindering the take up of new services such as digital wallets and the integrated financial products that are evolving in the growing open banking environment.

“To overcome this discomfort, service providers must be able to show New Zealand consumers the measures they’ve taken to protect customer data across the entire supply chain.”

This is the second of a series of sponsored posts about the 2018 Unisys Security Index. Click the link for more information about the survey.