State of the Web: U.S. condemns Huawei and ZTE for spying on us while spying on us

US government spying

The U.S. House Intelligence Committee caused an international uproar on Monday with the release of a report that condemns two top Chinese mobile device manufacturers, Huawei Technologies and ZTE, for posing threats to U.S. national security.

The report (embedded below), which comes after a year-long investigation, also recommends that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) block all “acquisitions, takeovers, or mergers involving Huawei Technologies and ZTE,” and that both U.S. government agencies and private U.S. companies should avoid using any devices or components made by the two Chinese technology firms.

The problem, says the report, is that technology produced by these companies may include embedded spyware that is capable of stealing information and transferring it back to the Chinese government. “Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems,” reads the report. The Committee says the companies have failed to provide adequate information to assuage concerns about their facilitation of spying for the Chinese government.

While both companies deny the Committee’s findings, the FBI, the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, and independent experts believe threats of spying and cyber-espionage from the Chinese government are real and serious.

“The Chinese government has hackers who work for them as full time employees, and are used to launch attacks on the U.S. and used to steal intellectual property from many different institutions in the U.S.,” Dr. Darren Hayes, chairman of the Computer Information Systems Program at Pace University in New York, told me during a interview. He adds that “China is the worst offender when it comes to cyberattacks and stealing intellectual property. There’s a couple of different things they focus on. Stealing intellectual property is one. And retaliation for certain things that the U.S. has done.”

In short, there is no denying that blocking Huawei, ZTE, and any other companies that could possibly transfer sensitive governmental and private business data to the Chinese government is a good move, assuming the Committee report is accurate — especially considering the reach and importance of our telecommunications systems.

Of course, all of this would be far more commendable if the U.S. government weren’t already using American telecommunications system to spy on its own citizens — at least, that’s the spiteful criticism of the report we heard repeatedly around the Web on Monday. And given the state of things, it’s one I almost fell into making myself. 

While domestic spying has a long history in the U.S., starting in earnest with the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (PDF), the surveillance activities of the federal government kicked into full gear in October, 2001, when President George W. Bush issued a secret presidential order that allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct widespread monitoring of U.S. citizens. The spying program was reportedly put in place to protect the U.S. against terrorist attacks, but innocent people like you and I got roped into the mix.

As we learned back in 2005 and 2006, the NSA enlisted the help of AT&T, which transmitted terabytes of citizens’ communications data from room 641A of AT&T headquarters in San Francisco. Since then, the program has only grown bigger, and burrowed deeper into our lives. NSA whistleblower William Binney recently revealed the operation now requires the use of far more rooms.

“I think there’s 10 to 20 of them,” Binney told Wired in March. “That’s not just San Francisco; they have them in the middle of the country and also on the East Coast.”

This expansion is detailed in a massive cache of Department of Justice documents obtained in September by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which outline the “exponential” growth of warrantless wiretaps, including pen register and trap-and-trace — mechanisms that allow law enforcement to collect hoards of data about our online communications without the need for a probable-cause search warrant.

During the Obama administration, the use of these surveillance mechanisms has become more firmly engrained into our legislation. Last May, President Obama confounded supporters by renewing two provisions of the Patriot Act (Sections 206 and 215), and Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004, which further strengthened warrentless wiretapping authorities. And last month, a nearly 3-to-1 majority of House Members voted to renew the FISA Amendments Act, despite warnings from dissident Members that the measure violates the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans.

To top it all off, a Congressional inquiry from earlier this year revealed that U.S. law enforcement demanded wireless carriers turn over customer data a staggering 1.3 million times in 2011 alone.

In other words, it’s not only smartphone companies in cahoots with the People’s Republic of China that we have to look over our shoulders for. We are being watched — and the technology that we all rely upon every day is being used against us, by us — and by them. It’s almost enough to make you disconnect altogether. Almost.

Despite the genuinely frightening and infuriating reality of domestic spying programs, it would be foolish to argue that the U.S. government should allow any foreign government to install countless eyes and ears within our borders — a feat that appears to be near the top of the Chinese government’s agenda. Every cybersecurity expert I spoke with over the past few weeks has, without fail, independently pointed a finger at China as a primary source of cybersecurity attacks against American systems — and that was before this House Intelligence Committee report landed in our laps.

Does it feel hypocritical of the U.S. government to take a stand against spying on Americans while simultaneously keeping tabs on every email, text message, or phone call we transmit? Absolutely — but as far as prohibitions on Huawei and ZTE are concerned, feelings of hypocrisy are entirely irrelevant. The likely danger posed by the widespread use of these companies’ devices exists regardless of U.S. domestic surveillance activities, Constitutionally-dubious though they may be.

Bottom line: Threats to U.S. national security are real. And technology is making us more vulnerable. The struggle we face is deciding how to deal with these threats without smothering our Constitutional rights, and how to avoid allowing technology to create more problems than it solves. Finding solutions to these slippery questions is a valid, essential exercise. Like it or not, the U.S. government helped answer the latter riddle on Monday — but clearly, more work lies ahead for us all.

Huawei-ZTE Investigative Report (FINAL)

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