Situation Report: China’s Huawei Going Mobile? (Exclusive)

Huawei Technologies
The Chinese firm, Huawei Technologies, a provider of information and communications technology, has been constantly under fire in the United States and around for the world for its supposed deep ties to China’s military and intelligence establishment. It is not without some justifiable concern either. Prior to starting Huawei Technologies, the company’s founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei, served for more than 10-years in China’s People’s Liberation Army’s engineering corps. This reality, rightly or wrongly, has added fodder for concerns that Chinese government interests are intertwined with those of Huawei. On September 13, Huawei Technologies and another Chinese firm, ZTE, were the subject of a Congressional hearing titled “Investigation of the Security Threat Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE”. The purpose of the hearing, as explained by the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was to assess the potential danger of “telecommunications equipment manufactured by companies with believed ties to the Chinese government”.

HPSCI Hearings

In a written statement before the Committee, Charles Ding, Senior Corporate Vice President at Huawei, pressed the case (.pdf) that the firm was not a threat to the US or any other nation. Ding claimed, “We will never do anything that undermines that trust”, adding, “it would be immensely foolish for Huawei to risk involvement in national security or economic espionage”. Committee Chairman Congressman Mike Rogers remained skeptical. In his opening statement, he put the issue squarely on Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation’s lap by saying, “we have heard reports about backdoors or unexplained beaconing from the equipment”.  A representative of ZTE Corporation was quick to protest and counter accusations by attempting to explain such anomalies as harmless software bugs. The Chairman appeared doubtful observing, “one person’s bug is another’s backdoor”.

Emerging Mobile Threat?

With all the noise surrounding national security implications of Chinese telecommunications equipment and network hardware, a report by Marbridge Consulting on September 10 claimed that Huawei announced intentions to “develop its own mobile OS and high-end handset chip”.  In turn, it raises the question of whether or not a national security risk is about to extend into the US mobile consumer market.

Huawei Denies Report

Jannie Luong, Public Relations Senior Manager at Huawei told intelNews in an e-mail statement: “Huawei will not be launching a proprietary operating system in the foreseeable future”, adding, “our innovation strategy is governed by our commitment to open collaborations that benefit customers and consumers. To this end, we will continue to work hand-in-hand with our industry partners to bring together hardware and software that best meet consumers’ needs”.

While Huawei is publicly denying the intention to build a proprietary mobile operating system, it is interesting to note that it is not denying it could be building a mobile operating system entirely. The key point in Huawei’s statement may just be the fact that it will not be proprietary. The question quickly becomes: is it building an open mobile operating system? Or is Huawei developing one based on Android? Huawei replied to such questions by explaining, “we will not be launching our own OS. We’ll continue to work with all operation systems.” Android it is then?

A Future Huawei App Store

Even if Huawei has no intentions to launch its own proprietary operating system in the “foreseeable future” there does appear to be a strong business case for such a move by Huawei. “Given that China has its own mobile standards (TD-SCDMA), and other local players such as Alibaba are spinning their own version of Android (Aliyun), it is natural that Huawei executes on this trajectory, so a mobile OS isn’t a bridge too far”, explains Zubin Wadia, CEO of CiviGuard Technologies, a provider of emergency communications platforms for mobile phones and connected devices (full disclosure: the author has an equity stake in CiviGuard).

In terms of security risk and the potential danger, it may well be premature to start sounding the proverbial alarm, especially with Huawei’s limited customer base in the US. “Huawei will have to execute exceedingly well to gain significant market share in North American and European Union markets and we’ll know more by 2017”, Wadia adds. “But at this time, the attack surface is just too limited for this development to be a significant national security concern”.

An Open Question

Concerns regarding Huawei and its connections to China’s intelligence and military apparatus remain an open issue for debate.  The potential threat from Chinese manufactured telecommunications equipment and communications infrastructure does as well. It will be interesting to watch if Huawei announces it is developing its own open operating system built on Android.  Such a move seems likely.  In doing so, Huawei may well be keeping the door of national security concerns ajar and in fact may actually be inviting further scrutiny.

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