Earlier this week, U.S. media reported that the Pentagon plans to prohibit the sale of phones made by Chinese mobile phone companies Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp in retail outlets on U.S. military bases around the world.
According to reports, defense officials are concerned that the Chinese government could order the firms to track soldiers' movements or snoop on their communications. Both Huawei and ZTE have denied that such a scenario is a possibility.
The current parameters of the ban are not particularly strict. First of all, the Pentagon isn’t blocking military members from using Huawei or ZTE phones for personal use - officials couldn’t do that even if they wanted to. However, the military may still issue an advisory on purchasing the devices in specific scenarios deemed necessary. Clearly, the cutting of supply lines on bases was meant to temper the prevalence of the handsets made by these companies among military personnel, especially foreign deployed personnel who apparently have an affinity for Huawei and ZTE phones.
The decision by Defense to restrict Huawei and ZTE devices in military locations is the latest in a years-long effort by the federal government to undermine these companies in the U.S. Meanwhile, some members of Congress are busy with efforts to further expand restrictions on Huawei and ZTE. Back in February, two Republican Senators introduced legislation to block any U.S. government entity from buying or leasing telecommunications equipment from Huawei Technologies or ZTE Corp. According to Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a supporter of legislation targeting the companies, “Huawei is effectively an arm of the Chinese government, and it’s more than capable of stealing information from US officials by hacking its devices.” Cotton added: “There are plenty of other companies that can meet our technology needs, and we shouldn’t make it any easier for China to spy on us.” The February bill was similar to another piece of legislation introduced a month before in the House, also aimed at forbidding government entities from using Chinese technology.
The fact that multiple laws of this type have been brought to the floor of Congress should come as no surprise. Over the past several months, Chinese companies have come under a salvo of regulations from federal bodies, many of them having substantial effects on American business and commerce.
Earlier this year, AT&T Inc was forced to scrap a collaborative plan with Huawei, in which the company would offer its customers Huawei handsets. AT&T was pressured into dropping the deal after members of Congress lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) directly by sending a letter to its head Ajit Pai, expressing concerns “about Chinese espionage in general, and Huawei’s role in that espionage in particular.”
The potential threat of foreign technology to American infrastructure cannot be written off as complete paranoia. At the same time, history has demonstrated the risk of descending into a downward spiral in which unfounded fear becomes the key factor in determining policy.
Seeing as the “supply chain” threat will not be going away anytime soon, policymakers would be wise to incorporate some guidelines into how they go about regulating foreign technology. This is the only way to ensure this trend doesn’t quickly get out of control.