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U.S. intel officials: Chinese phones, telecom services could be espionage tools

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last Tuesday, six top U.S. intelligence officials unanimously agreed that they would advise against government bodies or private citizens using equipment or services from China-based telecommunications companies ZTE or Huawei, due to the risks of potential espionage.

At the hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, NSA Director Mike Rogers, and Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Robert Cardillo all refused to raise their hands when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) inquired if they recommended the two Chinese telecom firms to American users. The exchange was reminiscent of a previously Senate Intel Committee hearing last May, when intel officials similarly said that they would not use software from Kaspersky Lab, a company that has been accused of helping Russians spy on the U.S. Soon after, federal agencies were banned from using Kaspersky.

Upon questioning, Wray elaborated further: “We're deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don't share our values to gain position or power inside our telecommunications networks,” said Wray, noting that such circumstances could allow rival nations or their proxies to exert control over U.S. infrastructure, maliciously modify or steal information, or conduct espionage.

Cotton, alongside Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), has introduced a bill that would prohibit U.S. government employees from using ZTE or Huawei technology, or even contracting with third-party companies that use these telecom companies.

SC Media has attempted to reach out to Huawei and ZTE for an official comment. Meanwhile, other outlets have cited statements from the companies. Huawei has stated that its offerings "pose no greater cybersecurity risk than other vendors." And a ZTE spokesperson issued a statement that the company is "committed to adhering to all applicable laws and regulations of the United States," adding that its devices incorporate U.S.-made chipsets, operating systems and other components."

Bradley Barth

As director of multimedia content strategy at CyberRisk Alliance, Bradley Barth develops content for online conferences, webcasts, podcasts video/multimedia projects — often serving as moderator or host. For nearly six years, he wrote and reported for SC Media as deputy editor and, before that, senior reporter. He was previously a program executive with the tech-focused PR firm Voxus. Past journalistic experience includes stints as business editor at Executive Technology, a staff writer at New York Sportscene and a freelance journalist covering travel and entertainment. In his spare time, Bradley also writes screenplays.

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