Trump's Chinese Telecom Protectionism Always Seems To Be Lacking Evidence

from the facts-matter dept

If you hadn't noticed by now, the Trump administration has made blacklisting Chinese telecom companies one of its top priorities. That's been most notably exemplified by the administration's attacks on Huawei, which is repeatedly cited as an asset of the Chinese government without much in the way of proof. From pressuring U.S. carriers to drop plans to sell Huawei phones to the FCC's decision to ban companies from using Huawei gear if they want to receive federal subsidies, this effort hasn't been subtle. A harder, broader ban is supposedly looming in the wings.

There's no doubt that Huawei, like AT&T here in the states, isn't a shining beacon of ethical behavior. At the same time, the dulcet undertones justifying much of the blacklisting is based on the premise that the company spies on Americans on a massive scale. Yet nobody has provided evidence of that. In the slightest. In fact, one 18-month investigation into Huawei in 2011 (the last time we had a similar epidemic of hand-wringing on this subject) found that there was no evidence supporting that claim. As in, at all:

"We knew certain parts of government really wanted” evidence of active spying, said one of the people, who requested anonymity. “We would have found it if it were there."

Also ignored is that U.S. hardware vendors like Cisco have a very long history of trying to gin up hysteria on Capital Hill on this front among lawmakers who aren't too keen on, well, facts:

"What happens is you get competitors who are able to gin up lawmakers who are already wound up about China,” said one Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “What they do is pull the string and see where the top spins."

Again, it's certainly possible that Huawei has spied on Americans, but shouldn't somebody actually provide the smallest bit of public evidence of that fact before we blacklist a company from the better part of a continent? Wouldn't we demand the same if the shoe was on the other foot? The UK and Germany have been skeptical of the US claims, noting they've also yet to see hard evidence proving the scope of the claims. As such, they've taken steps to tighten up security in general, instead of stumbling down the facts-optional protectionism rabbit hole.

Fast forward to last week when the FCC announced it would be banning China Mobile from doing business in the US:

"After a lengthy review of the application and consultation with the U.S. intelligence community, in 2018, the Executive Branch agencies recommended that the FCC deny China Mobile USA’s application due to substantial national security and law enforcement concerns that cannot be resolved through an agreement with the company (called “voluntary mitigation”). Notably, this is the first time the Executive Branch has ever recommended that the FCC deny an application due to national security concerns. Based on this recommendation and the full public record in this proceeding, I have determined that approving this application would not serve the public interest. At our May meeting, the Commission therefore will vote on an Order that would deny China Mobile USA’s application."

Given the Trump administration's relationship to factual reality, that it was the "first" to deny a telecom application on national security grounds doesn't actually mean anything. What was the nature of the identified threat? How severe was it? Where was it discovered? Can you provide the slightest shred of data supporting this claim? Even in redacted form? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Again, it's entirely possible China Mobile is a surveillance threat. But again, why not make at least some of that information public? The problem with the all-too-patriotic and unquestioning press and analyst repetition of these claims (and that is the general tone of US coverage) is that it opens the door to letting government and US industry disguise protectionism as national security. And when you press for evidence, those pushing the agenda hide behind government secrecy. Hopefully it's not too hard to see how this is a problem, or to understand that demanding a bit more (any?) actual evidence isn't really a steep ask.

But the press, oblivious to its own patriotism, tends to parrot these claims without much in the way of hard questions. Or without providing much meaningful context.

For example, you'd be hard pressed to find many stories on Huawei that mention that Americans are so happy to install poorly secured internet of things devices on their home and business networks, foreign intelligence organizations probably don't even need to own the core infrastructure. Or that there's an absolute universe of other Chinese-made hardware embedded in everything from your home router to your not-so-smart refrigerator we apparently don't seem nearly as perplexed by. Or that the United States engages in most of the dubious behavior we have routinely accused China of.

That the "US engages in much of this same behavior and probably shouldn't be giving lectures on surveillance ethics" isn't intended as whataboutism. There's a genuine problem at the heart of this issue: if the US press doesn't demand a factual, transparent public accounting of the Chinese surveillance threat, the door is opened wide to lobbyists eager to disguise protectionism as national security. Companies like Cisco, who simply don't want to compete with cheaper Chinese hardware, have been exploiting this dysfunction for years. And the press, with a few occasional exceptions, has been happy to lend a hand.

Filed Under: china, evidence, fcc, protectionism, telecom
Companies: china mobile


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  • icon
    Berenerd (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 6:35am

    So let me get this straight...

    Huawei is spying on Americans but there is no proof, so they should be banned.
    AT&T/Verizon/Etc is spaying on their customers and happily share that information with the US government and that is some how ok?

    I need to stop trying to rationalize how the government works, or doesn't work in this apparent case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:00am

      Re:

      Your mistake is actually trying to reconcile facts and not consider whether they're consistent with what you previously thought or said on the subject. Trump has no such problem.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Gary (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:07am

        Re: Re:

        His Gut is telling him what to do. "Facts" only get in the way.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 9:19am

        Re: Re:

        The facts here are logical: the US government says it's not OK to spy for foreign governments. They've been pretty consistent in saying it's OK to spy for the US government—and more generally, for some decades, that the normal rules of foreign policy don't apply to the USA.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:29am

      Re:

      Huawei is accused of spying on their customers, which would benefit them, and is therefore bad.

      AT&T and the likes spy on their customers and that benefits them, and in turn the politicians they buy, and therefore they are perfectly fine.

      Huawei just needs to buy a few politicians and they'd get a pass, same as the US companies.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:07am

    Hardware kill switches/backdoors are stupidly hard to find from silicon. Probing with electron microscope is a fool's errand.

    Considering all modern Intel CPUs have IME that is vulnerable to certain attacks, saying the Chinese can't play same game isn't that far-fetched.

    But indisputable evidence surfacing before WW3 seems unlikely.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ben (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:35am

      Re:

      In the end, network equipment has to be connected to upstream & downstream cabling (or network) in order to send anything to China. Surely somebody has put Huawei kit in a sandboxed network environment to find out whether it sends anything home? No need to examine the contents of the box, just check ALL outputs that are being routed anywhere unexpected.

      But that would mean actually doing some work... why do that when you can posture and preen and encourage your base to do all the outrage and shouting for you?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:41am

      Re:

      Hell, as long as nearly impossible to disprove 'what if's are on the table you might as well toss any and all tech(US included), because all of it could be compromised.

      If no less than the gorram government is going to fearmonger about how a company from another country might be spying on their customers providing some actual evidence to support that is the absolute minimum that would be reasonable to expect. Without that Hitchen's Razor should be applied to any such claims.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:50am

      Re:

      Get a good network protocol analyzer and look at outgoing packets.
      Why do things the hard way?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:19am

    I await China cancelling his families trademarks & the ensuing trade war.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:36am

    Just be honest about it...

    At this point they might as well drop the paper-thin pretense and just admit that it has nothing to do with 'security' and everything to do with protectionism. Just dress it up as 'protecting a US company from unfair(read: any) competition' and the stooges masquerading as press would parrot and praise it same as before.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:36am

    I'm sure Karl Bode did a lot of research for this article. Perhaps he missed that there were allegations and evidence of previous spying. Didn't see any mention of it in the article.

    https://www.assemblymag.com/blogs/14-assembly-blog/post/90631-did-outsourcing-and-corporate -espionage-kill-nortel

    https://www.eclipsetscm.com/bugging-device-found/mystery-listening-devices-dn ds-nortel-campus/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:54am

      Re:

      When you try to criticise others for not doing proper research here, why does your own "evidence" always consist of random blog posts and never primary or reputable sources?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:55am

      Re:

      Both articles are long on claims and short on evidence... as in none. Just more talk about how China loves to spy with nothing to back it up.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 9:10am

      Re:

      Did you even read those articles? Here's from the second one (where, not for nothin', the word "Huawei" appears a total of zero times):

      So what happened? Were listening devices found at the Nortel Campus or not?

      The Department of National Defence keeps changing its story on that issue.

      It then goes on to explain changing and contradictory claims about whether or not any spy devices were found. The only named sources in the article deny that any such devices were found.

      Even if you believe that those named sources are lying, guess what: that actually reinforces the point Karl is making in this article, that government intelligence agencies have not provided good evidence of spying by Huawei.

      And, by the way? This article is about the United States. It specifically mentions President Trump in the headline. That all you could produce where articles about something that happened in Canada does not actually contradict the article's point that the US government has not produced evidence of spying.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 12:11pm

      Re:

      Oh AC I love you. You paid real money, that you mom and dad had to earn to, to go out and make a billboard of your ignorance.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Apr 2019 @ 1:18pm

      Re:

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:37am

    deny China Mobile USA’s application due to substantial national security and law enforcement concerns that cannot be resolved through an agreement with the company

    Does that mean that China Mobile will not provide them with the access to communications that they want, like encryption keys so that they can read them?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 9:27am

    Trump uses too many words.

    He should just issue and executive order that simply states:

    Buy 'merican.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 10:54am

    If you hadn't noticed by now, the Trump administration has made blacklisting Chinese telecom companies one of its top priorities. That's been most notably exemplified by the administration's attacks on Huawei, which is repeatedly cited as an asset of the Chinese government without much in the way of proof.

    Assume US intelligence gathering involves access to non-Chinese made telecom equipment.

    Replace that equipment with new players outside that control grid. Now you've gone dark in some areas.

    The pressure to prevent gaps in intelligence gathering would look similar to what we've seen. Steps taken without much evidence to back the claim.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Apr 2019 @ 4:22am

    "For example, you'd be hard pressed to find many stories on Huawei that mention that Americans are so happy to install poorly secured internet of things devices on their home and business networks, foreign intelligence organizations probably don't even need to own the core infrastructure."

    Yep. But, direct access to the core infrastructure is faster/cheaper.

    But, you get to choose. Do you want to be spied on by 5eyes or China?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously, 24 Apr 2019 @ 6:49am

    My first reaction to claims like these is usually: `So, the NSA uses backdoors in Cisco hardware to spy abroad (also at home). Where else would (digitally inept) politicians get those ideas.'
    Or is that my sardonic nature playing up?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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