31 May 2019

What's all the fuss about Huawei?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 31 May 2019
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Photo: AFP

Chinese tech giant Huawei is at the centre of a technology cold war, and now consumers have been dragged into it.

The company is the pride of China, with annual sales of more than $150 billion, employing 180 thousand people in more than 170 countries. More than three billion people use Huawei’s services and products. It’s the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment, and the world’s second largest smartphone producer, behind Samsung – and ahead of Apple. It is also the global leader – by a long way – in 5G technology, which promises to be a leap forward in the industry.

“In New Zealand we know them for providing the network that 2degrees uses today,” says Paul Spain, who runs tech company Gorilla.

“Up until recently they were on an incredible trajectory, but of course that’s now very much in doubt.”

Huawei has been black-listed by US President Donald Trump – accused of spying for China. There’s now a de-facto ban on US companies dealing with Huawei.

The last 18 months have been marked by a long list of controversies around the world, mostly centred on 5G.

The United States is urging its allies to drop Huawei from networks, claiming the company is an arm of the Chinese Government. In New Zealand, the GCSB has rejected Spark’s bid to use Huawei equipment on the new 5G network, citing security risks. 

This month Google banned popular apps such as YouTube for new Huawei handsets – meaning anyone who buys them won’t get their favourite apps, and won’t get security updates.

The US action against the Chinese company could be because of security and spying concerns – or it could be a commercial move to try to stop in its tracks the company that is by far the world leader in 5G, and which is cutting out the big American tech brands who can’t do any business in China.

“It certainly would not be unfair to join the dots and say, well this is why we are seeing the current actions being taken, why Huawei’s being blacklisted,” says Spain.

“In New Zealand we have between 10 and 20 percent of the population with a Huawei handset in their pocket so that’s quite attention grabbing to say your phone might not work properly for too long. But [it] may have a much broader impact – a very high percentage of New Zealand phones have ultra-fast broadband connections for instance, and if it’s from Vodafone or Spark then there’s a pretty high chance they have a Huawei router that connects them to the internet. Those routers I’m sure will rely on an element of American technology.” 

There are worrying aspects of Huawei’s technology, including Chinese law that may force individuals to comply with requests to spy. And Spain says it wouldn’t be too difficult for the company that controls software to install an app on your phone that captures audio, video and emails and passing it off at certain times – which would be a concern.

But Spain says the US also has some debatable operations – just look at Guantanamo Bay.

And he asks, which government do we trust? 

“Commonly people say 'look, I don’t trust any of them, so let whoever it is spy, I just want to be able to choose whatever works for me, and I like this phone so I’m going to buy it – and I’ll accept that maybe they’re listening in to everything I do'.”

Photo: RNZ