Millions of UK smartphones rendered dumb as Google pulls Android services from Huawei

Hannah Boland
Google has blocked Huawei's access to Android to comply with a US order - AFP

Millions of smartphones will become dumbphones in the UK after Google vowed to stop working with Huawei in the latest twist to the US-China trade war.

Access to Google's most popular apps, including Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps, will be barred on Huawei phones in the future after the tech giant responded to an executive order by US President Donald Trump.

A host of other Silicon Valley giants will also follow Google into a technological showdown between Washington and Beijing.

The move is likely to raise pressure on Britain to follow suit in barring Huawei, after the Telegraph revealed the Chinese firm will be used to build parts of the UK's new 5G network.

Some 2.6 million Huawei smartphones, which can cost as much as £1,000, were sold in Britain last year. A new model, the Honor 20, is due to be launched at an event in London on Tuesday.

The ban is set to catch out millions of users of devices made by Huawei, whose smartphones run the Android operating system made by Google.

Existing Huawei phone owners will lose access to the latest Android updates from Google, leaving them at risk of hackers because they can’t immediately access the latest the latest critical security updates. 

Instead Huawei will be forced to create security patches only after Google has released its own, creating a lag where devices may not be protected. Industry experts suggest this gap would leave devices vulnerable and presented a “real risk”.

“It's now clear that their Android operating system will no longer receive important security updates,” said Tristan Rayner, an expert on Android smartphones.

Current customers are expected to still get updates for Google's apps, but will not be able to install the latest version of Android when it is released and new Huawei phones will lose access altogether.

Microsoft and chipmakers Intel and Qualcomm were last night set to comply with an executive order from Mr Trump, that bans American firms selling goods and services to Huawei.

Many intelligence agencies view the firm as security risk with close ties to the Chinese government.

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who chairs parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and is also a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, yesterday said that it was “inevitable” that some British companies would follow Google, and that they should do so on a “case by case basis”.

“We don’t want a superpower adversary. But there are areas where cooperation with Beijing simply doesn’t work,” he said.  

Yesterday Mr Tugendhat said Mrs May's decision to involve Huawei in the UK's 5G network needed to be revisited: “It’s clear the answer is to stay partnered with our closest allies. As a party and as a government we need to be much clearer about that.”

Norman Lamb, Chair of the Science and Technology committee, said Huawei faced questions that it “facilitated the surveillance state” in China, which would “indicate a close relationship with the Chinese government on security issues.”

In the next few days his committee will announce the date of an extraordinary evidence session into Huawei’s involvement in 5G in Britain. Likely to be held next month, it will be the first time Huawei has given evidence before a parliamentary committee. “I’m acutely aware that it’s becoming a geopolitical issue,” Mr Lamb added.

The Google move has been described by some as the fall of a technological Iron Curtain in a new Cold War.

Former Foreign Secretary and ex-chair of the Intelligence Select Committee Sir Malcolm Rifkind said: “Given China’s position on state of the art of technologies, this all links to the wider question that, now China is becoming the world’s other superpower, will they use that power in an aggressive manner?”

Privately, some British officials are frustrated with the vagueness of the US order, and fear that its scope will only be clarified by legal challenges and failed applications for a US licence to do business with Huawei. They also fear diplomatic pressure on Britain to fall into line with America will increase ahead of Mr Trump’s state visit at the beginning of next month.

A Huawei spokesman said: “Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products.”  

Huawei has repeatedly denied it is linked to the Chinese state.