What is the Huawei controversy?

What is the Huawei controversy?

Matt Blowes May 22, 2019 IT Trends, Opinion, Security

Huawei is a popular Chinese technology manufacturer accused by the U.S. government of spying for the Chinese government. 

The latest update to this on-going saga is Google announcing restrictions on Huawei's access to the Android mobile operating system. Android software is critical for the Chinese company's growing mobile phone business. 

Google's restriction follows the May 16 decision by the U.S. government to add Huawei to its export blacklist, effectively banning U.S. companies from trading with the company. 

The use of Huawei devices and infrastructure has been controversial for years but increased pressure from the U.S. and Huawei's growing popularity among consumers have caused tensions to escalate. 

Who is Huawei? 

Huawei MateBook X ProIf you're not familiar, Huawei is a Chinese technology manufacturer of both consumer devices (mobile phones & laptops) and large-scale network infrastructure.

Its popularity has soared in the mobile phone market in recent years but it's also competitive in the laptop market with devices like the MateBook X Pro.

Huawei is also one of a few large technology companies with the capacity to build next-generation 5G mobile data networks on a mass-scale.

Huawei's competitively low pricing in each market it enters makes their hardware an attractive option for consumers and businesses. 

What is the controversy? 

Western governments, particularly the United States, argue Huawei devices and infrastructure are vulnerable to spying. "Huawei is effectively an arm of the Chinese government," said U.S. Senator Tom Cotton in early 2018. 

Founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former member of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, Huawei has struggled to shake a reputation for having a close relationship with the Chinese government. 

As a result, the U.S. and Australia have practically banned Huawei 5G infrastructure hardware. NZ has blocked one 5G network proposal and may block further requests, while Canada and the U.K. are still in the decision-making process. These nations make up the Five Eyes intelligence sharing nations. BBC News offers a summary of government responses to Huawei 5G network proposals here.

While the U.S. has not published any significant evidence of its Huawei spying claims, it has shared evidence with Five-Eyes nations.

On May 16, the U.S. banned all companies within its jurisdiction from transacting with Huawei. This will make it practically impossible for Huawei to continue to selling consumer devices in the same way it has until now. It relies on software licensing from Google and Microsoft. 

Despite the harsh measures against Huawei, the U.S. government is temporarily allowing existing Huawei devices owned by consumers to continue to receive software updates until August 19. And it is possible updates may be permitted after that date.

For a more complete picture of Huawei's difficulties over the past two years, a timeline of Huawei's issues is available here on CNET

Should I purchase Huawei devices?

For consumers and businesses, Huawei's issues come down to one key question:

Will Huawei devices (laptops & phones) work reliably for the next 1-3 years? 

Despite Huawei consumer devices still being available in Australia, there is a reasonable argument to avoid their hardware. While Huawei phones remain available through Telstra and Optus (as of 22/05/2019), Huawei laptops were removed from the Microsoft Store on May 21. 

With the U.S. effectively banning Huawei for the foreseeable future and U.S. companies suspending partnerships, Huawei devices are unlikely to have full software support from Microsoft and Google going forward.

Existing Huawei phones will continue to function, it's unlikely they'll receive any future Android updates. And new models may not have any core Google services, like Maps. 

Rumours have circulated for several years that Huawei is developing their own mobile operating system, named HongMeng OS, to replace Android. However, it's unclear whether those rumours are true, what devices the operating system will work on and whether it adequately compares to Android. 

For now, if you prioritise reliability and feature stability, it's difficult to recommend Huawei. 

This may change in future, but without support from key partners like Google, Huawei faces an uncertain future outside of China. 

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