Huawei, the second-largest phone maker in the world, needs to do something fast if it ever wants to gain a foothold in the U.S. and potentially become the world's largest phone maker one day.
The Chinese company can't get U.S. carriers to sell its phones. And now the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA have publicly accused the company of allowing its devices — along with ZTE's — to be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans.
Though Huawei has denied the allegations, it needs to do more to convince Americans its phones can and should be trusted.
Nobody likes being on the receiving end of accusations, and Huawei has publicly stated its outrage at being singled out for allegedly helping the Chinese government spy on Americans through its phones.
At CES 2018, Richard Yu, the CEO of Huawei's consumer electronics group, shut down espionage claims saying the company has spent the last 25 years relentlessly earning the approval and trust of carriers and governments around the world.
When reached for comment on the allegations, a Huawei spokesperson provided the following statement:
"Huawei is aware of a range of U.S. government activities seemingly aimed at inhibiting Huawei's business in the U.S. market. Huawei is trusted by governments and customers in 170 countries worldwide and poses no greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT vendor, sharing as we do common global supply chains and production capabilities. We are committed to openness and transparency in everything we do. Ultimately Huawei will continue to develop its global business through a significant commitment to innovation and R&D and to delivering technology that helps our customers succeed in all markets that value the innovation and value it delivers."
A ZTE spokesperson provided a similar statement:
"ZTE is proud of the innovation and security of our products in the US market. As a publicly traded company, we are committed to adhering to all applicable laws and regulations of the United States, work with carriers to pass strict testing protocols, and adhere to the highest business standards. Our mobile phones and other devices incorporate US-made chipsets, US-made operating systems and other components. ZTE takes cybersecurity and privacy seriously and remains a trusted partner to our US suppliers, US customers and the people who use our high quality and affordable products for their communications needs."
Where's the proof?
If you're Huawei, you'd be upset, too. Especially since there's been no evidence that Huawei's phones are really spying on anyone.
And that's really the issue here. There isn't any hard evidence at this time to back up any claims that Huawei phones are a threat to personal or national security. It's just a lot of smoke from Washington.
Ironically, the only known hacking we know of that's closely related to Huawei wasn't done by the company or the Chinese government, but by the NSA. In 2012, it was revealed the NSA had made a program called "Shotgiant" that created backdoors into Huawei-made networking equipment in order to monitor communications around the world and find ties between the Chinese company and China's People's Liberation Army.
But like the new allegations, there was no evidence that Huawei had done any wrongdoing.
Per the New York Times:
Two years after Shotgiant became a major program, the House Intelligence Committee delivered an unclassified report on Huawei and another Chinese company, ZTE, that cited no evidence confirming the suspicions about Chinese government ties. Still, the October 2012 report concluded that the companies must be blocked from "acquisitions, takeover or mergers” in the United States, and “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence."
Read that last sentence again. There's no proof, but Huawei still can't be trusted.
Just imagine if any other government said this. For example, imagine if the Chinese government accused Apple's iPhones of spying on its citizens even though there's no evidence to suggest so. It then bans iPhones and labels Apple as untrustworthy because it could be working with, say, the NSA, to monitor Chinese communications. Would that be fair? Of course not.
In 2016, it was discovered that Adups, a Chinese-based software company that sells firmware to third-party Android makers like Blu, had included software that would send a person's text messages to a Chinese server every 72 hours. The tracking software was intended for an unnamed Chinese phone maker, but was not intended for American phones.
Blu had the spyware removed, but it's unclear if other phone makers like Huawei and ZTE who also reportedly use Adups' software also removed it from their devices. And which phones have the spyware if they're still present on phones? We've reached out to Huawei for clarification.
Huawei has always maintained that it's an "independent private company wholly owned by its employees," but any ounce of suspicion (unfounded or not) hurts its business, not just in the U.S. but globally.
Create trust for Americans
So what can the company do to address these worries, assuming it's not really in cahoots with the Chinese government?
The answer is: transparency.
Yes, it sucks that Huawei is getting dragged around, but if it wants to prove its innocence, it'll need to show extensively how its devices aren't eavesdropping on its users.
There is no evidence at this time to back up any claims that Huawei phones are a threat to personal or national security.
It's not quite the same situation, but it could be in Huawei's best interest to borrow a move from Samsung's playbook when the Galaxy Note 7 phones exploded in 2016.
Following the Note 7's unfortunate launch, Samsung vowed to create a thorough investigation into what caused the batteries to combust.
In addition to conducting its own investigation, the company also hired electrical experts from outside firms such as UL as well for unbiased perspectives. Samsung then shared these detailed findings at a press conference streamed worldwide for consumers to watch.
And as if that wasn't enough, Samsung invited select tech publications (including Mashable) to visit its battery factories in South Korea to further learn about its findings and the measures it had implemented to ensure such a situation would never happen again on new phones.
Go on the offense
This strategy ultimately helped the company right its mobile reputation. It changed the negative conversation into a positive one and helped restore consumer trust.
Huawei needs its own Note 7 "redemption" moment. It could hire third-party researchers to look into its software code to ensure there's no backdoor sending data to China, and then disclose that information to consumers, carriers, and U.S. intelligence agencies.
Whatever it does, it needs to do something fast. These allegations aren't going to stop. The problem's not going to disappear if you just focus on developing innovative technologies that consumers care about. In other words, Huawei: Show, don't tell. Show people why your phones are safe to use. Extreme transparency and honesty goes a long way and will pay huge sums down the road.