In conjunction with Tech Editor Robbie Pence

Huawei has been making some major headlines in recent months. Huawei has been caught right in the middle of US-China trade war that has only recently concluded with a new trade deal with China. Huawei has found itself a vanguard of the 5G movement and a vanguard in the mobile space but the Western security concerns with the company and the Chinese government are causing Huawei to be put in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Huawei and 5G

As we’ve said before, 5G is coming to cellular networks near you. 5G will bring wi-fi speeds over the air everywhere people can get cellphone reception. Huawei is leading the world in 5G technology, an area where the US has not invested as much research and development. As cellphone carriers begin to deploy 5G networks, the US will most likely be behind as business with Huawei is banned for any company doing business with the federal government. The Trump administration has made developing a Huawei alternative a top priority and is currently working with leading tech companies to do just that. 5G has great promise of creating a digital future where any media will be available with wired internet speeds. The idea of virtual networks that control transportation, logistics, and much more can be a reality but the time to start developing this technology in the US was at least 20 years ago. In the great 5G race, the US is already behind China. The US has an incentive to catch up. In a digital age, internet speeds can affect everything from financial transactions to the arrival of packages and other logistics. The economy who can do it faster will win over and economy that can’t do things fast enough simply can’t keep up. So why does the US not embrace Huawei? In a word, security.

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Huawei, China, and the West

Early in February, the UK broke with the United States and allowed Huawei onto its burgeoning 5G network. This is a contrast to the US which has banned US companies from doing business with the Chinese manufacturer. This change will begin to align the post-Brexit UK with China more than the United States, a long-time ally. Given the security implications of this change, the security relationship between the UK and the US could be changing.

The US security concerns regarding China are well-founded. Bloomberg Magazine recently wrote a stunning piece about Amazon’s acquisition of a video-streaming startup called Elemental. Their hardware was found to have a chip on the hardware that was spying for China. The chip was smaller than a grain of rice but it allowed backdoor access at the motherboard level to any system which used the hardware. How were they able to pull this off? China manufactures 75% of the world’s mobile phones and 90% of its PCs. By working with the Chinese manufacturing subcontractors, Chinese intelligence was able to add this spying part and make sure that it ended up in strategic locations. This technology turned up everywhere within the government and even onboard Navy ship’s internal networks.

This isn’t the only China-related security problem. In the open internet, the Chinese government has also used a Border Gateway Protocol hack to re-route internet traffic through servers that it can surveil. For government, industry, and anyone sending secure information, this kind of a fundamental hack can be devastating. The BGP hack can cause massive traffic issues and cause websites throughout the world to go down for no obvious reason. The reality is that when it comes to digital spying, the Chinese are playing 4D chess while the US is playing checkers.

Given that China is already getting more clever with security, the ban on using technology from Huawei becomes obvious. Huawei, like most major Chinese companies, has close ties to the Chinese government. Potentially, the Chinese government could use Huawei to spy on internet traffic traveling over a 5G network using their technology. Obviously, this presents a massive security risk for the upcoming virtual networks that may soon control many parts of American life.

The Big Business of Big Data

In another aspect of security, concerning the rest of us, and China; it has recently come out that China is buying US data. Everything from IP addresses to internet history is being bought. If China wanted to target government workers, intelligence operatives, and others, the analysis of this data would allow for that kind of individual targeting. The fact that Apple and others through their Chinese corporate partnerships are allowing this kind of data to bought or in some cases freely transferred to Chinese partners is yet another security risk coming out of China.

Huawei comes up again here because there is a potential of rather than buying this data, Huawei equipment could simply collect it when the traffic travels over Huawei equipment. Data is the oil of the 21st century and keeping it secure is vital to a functioning economy and a functioning world, especially with the expansion of 5G creating virtual networks in more parts of everyday life.

Photo by Sebastian Hietsch on Unsplash

Harmony OS

Not everything with Huawei is doom and gloom, far from it in fact. Huawei is launching a new operating system that has some major security ramifications for those concerned with privacy.

Launching a new mobile OS is no easy thing. For first, there are apps. Google and Apple are the largest mobile markets and both the android and iOS systems sport millions of apps. Porting those apps over to the new Harmony OS system will be no easy thing. Starting a new ecosystem might have been possible ten years ago, but for the US market, that time has passed, just as RIM, the maker of BlackBerry. Harmony OS might have more success in China proper but it will be competing with Android and Apple who are already major players in the Chinese market.

There are some great potentials with Harmony. It is an open-source operating system so, developers and security professionals will be able to analyze the code for any spying or backdoors. Harmony OS could really be setting your phone free, especially if you want to escape the Android/Apple duopoly. Because it is open-source there is potential for forks of new operating systems and could be better than Linux. Harmony could be an OS that uses android apps but isn’t owned/controlled by Google and is totally separate from the Apple ecosystem. The new operating system would boast more security and actually boast open access.

It’s become a suspected thing that our smartphones and other devices are listening to us. Amazon and Apple both have recent scandals with the amount of data that they collect and how they use it. For those concerned with personal security, Harmony could be the answer to keeping data secure and away from prying corporate and even government eyes.

For security reasons, some users are concerned with Google and Apple because they are government-connected. For users concerned with privacy, especially from big government, then Harmony OS could be the solution. 
There are some efforts to open up Android with custom Android OS but there is little money behind these projects which means the product is not great and could be a long time before anything of quality actually is produced from those products. Harmony could be the future if it’s deployed correctly.

So…Friend or Foe?

There are some obvious problems with Huawei, China, and security. However, the potential of the Harmony OS could be incredibly helpful to the mobile space and allow new operating systems that aren’t owned by Google or Apple and their own dubious government connections. Huawei is a mixed security bag. For the US to catch up with 5G corporate leaders are going to have to work long and hard to make up for the lack of technological progress on that front. When it comes to China, and data the same security problems remain in place. As long as Huawei remains cozy to the Chinese government (despite their denials) the security and data concerns will remain. For now, there appears to be no need for the everyday person to fear Huawei, at least for now.