Let’s say you’re a law-abiding, civic-minded American citizen engaged in some form of activism for change or political dissent or, God forbid, entering a mosque. You want to be able to go about these democratic pursuits without some foreign surveillance system monitoring your every step and conversation, am I right? And you want to think the United States has a system in place to keep you secure from international spyware, correct?
Well, if that’s how you really feel, text those beliefs at your own risk.
It’s not just the Chinese you have to worry about monitoring your cellphone call or email. That’s one lesson that privacy advocates are adding to findings from a House Intelligence Committee Report released this week that warned of the surveillance risk posed by Chinese telecom companies.
Since 2011, Congress has been investigating two global information and communications technology companies, Huawei Technologies Company and ZTE, because of their perceived ties to the Chinese state.
According to the committee, Chinese intelligence could be using backchannel connections to the companies to access American networks for the purposes of espionage.
Lawmakers’ primary concern was that networking gear sold by the Chinese companies to U.S. businesses and government agencies, and U.S. companies doing business with the U.S. government, is actually geared to specifications dictated by Chinese spy agencies, allowing Beijing to snoop on sensitive email and documents without being detected. Chinese intelligence has the will and the companies have the way, goes the official U.S. thinking.
The report, which is light on details and heavy on claims that the evidence is classified, concludes the Chinese companies can’t be trusted. In addition to recommending further investigation by the Obama Administration, the committee called for U.S. government communication systems—and those of its contractors—to be free of the ZTE or Huawei parts and discouraged U.S. companies from doing business with the foreigners.
“While it is nice that the government admits that the Chinese may be a valid concern, they don’t seem to count themselves as a part of the problem.”
Activists say the report ignores existing security vulnerabilities with U.S. cellphone networks. The main problem? The potential for “backdoor” monitoring by the government or some other entity through the mobile device in you pocket right now already exists.
“There is no doubt that some governments would use their influence on companies to make systems more vulnerable. We should know. It’s how we ended up with [the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act] in the U.S.,” Jacob Appelbaum, a member of the Tor Project, a network that allows Internet users to maintain anonymity online, tells TakePart.
The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, passed in 1994 under the watch of President Bill Clinton, required telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment to modify and design their systems to include built-in surveillance capabilities for the benefit of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
“If we want to secure our infrastructure, we must reject making it insecure in the first place,” says Appelbaum. “A really secure communication system should allow people to communicate without trusting the network infrastructure.”
Appelbaum has repeatedly warned that police possess the technology to push updates onto almost any American’s cellphone that backdoor the device and turn it into a remote-controlled microphone and camera. He suggests encryption services such as RedPhone, PrivateGSM and CryptoPhone as ways to ensure privacy across telecommunication networks.
“While it is nice that the government admits that the Chinese may be a valid concern, they don’t seem to count themselves as a part of the problem,” says Appelbaum. “What I find most scary is that the FBI wants such backdoors in all of our systems, and they’re willing to make us all vulnerable to maintain their so-called lawful interception systems.”
So-called “lawful intercept” mechanisms are now standardized by the International Telecommunication Union and mandated by nearly every country in the world, according to David Burgess, a blogger who writes on cellphone network security.
Even if a country’s citzenry did have full confidence in its government, once that government has drilled windows of opportunity for infiltrating and taking over your electronic devices, those window are open for any unscrupulous characters who choose to crawl through them—be they foreign governments, criminal organizations or rogue civil servants.
Burgess tells TakePart: “Before mandating intercept features, a government must ask itself what the bigger threat may be: Added difficulty in collecting evidence or the exploitation of these features by other parties?”
Do you trust the U.S. government to behave responsibly with its access to your telephone? Explain your security or fears in COMMENTS.
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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.