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The Importance of ZTE Security Deficits

A great of speculation exists around mobile companies of all stripes: are they secure? Do they secretly insert backdoors for government? What kinds of assurances do customers and citizens have around the devices?

Recently these concerns exploded (again) following a Reuters article that notes serious problems in ZTE mobile phones. There are a series of reasons that security agencies can, and do, raise concerns about foreign built equipment (some related more to economics than good security practice). While it’s possible that ZTE’s vulnerabilities were part of a Chinese national-security initiative, it’s entirely likely (and more probable) that ZTE’s backdoor access into their mobiles is a genuine, gigantic, mistake. Let’s not forget that even ‘our’ companies are known for gross security incompetence.

In the ZTE case it doesn’t matter if the backdoor was deliberate or not. It doesn’t matter if the company patches the devices, either, because a large number of customers will never apply updates to their phones. This means that, for all intents and purposes, these devices will have well publicized security holes for the duration of their existence. It’s that kind of ongoing vulnerability – one that persists regardless of vendor ‘patches’ – that is increasingly dangerous in the mobile world, and a threat that is arguably more significant (at the moment) than whether we can trust company X or Y.

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Surprise: American Equipment Spies on Iranians

Steve Stecklow, for Reuters, has an special report discussing how Chinese vendor ZTE was able to resell American network infrastructure and surveillance products to the Iranian government. The equipment sold is significant;

Mahmoud Tadjallimehr, a former telecommunications project manager in Iran who has worked for major European and Chinese equipment makers, said the ZTE system supplied to TCI was “country-wide” and was “far more capable of monitoring citizens than I have ever seen in other equipment” sold by other companies to Iran. He said its capabilities included being able “to locate users, intercept their voice, text messaging … emails, chat conversations or web access.”

The ZTE-TCI documents also disclose a backdoor way Iran apparently obtains U.S. technology despite a longtime American ban on non-humanitarian sales to Iran – by purchasing them through a Chinese company.

ZTE’s 907-page “Packing List,” dated July 24, 2011, includes hardware and software products from some of America’s best-known tech companies, including Microsoft Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co, Oracle Corp, Cisco Systems Inc, Dell Inc, Juniper Networks Inc and Symantec Corp.

ZTE has partnerships with some of the U.S. firms. In interviews, all of the companies said they had no knowledge of the TCI deal. Several – including HP, Dell, Cisco and Juniper – said in statements they were launching internal investigations after learning about the contract from Reuters.

The sale of Western networking and surveillance equipment/software to the Iranian government isn’t new. In the past, corporate agents for major networking firms explained to me the means by which Iran is successfully importing the equipment; while firms cannot positively know that this is going on, it’s typically because of an intentional willingness to ignore what they strongly suspect is happening. Regardless, the actual sale of this specific equipment – while significant – isn’t the story that Western citizens can do a lot to change at this point.

Really, we should be asking: do we, as citizens of Western nations, believe that manufacturing of these kinds of equipment is permissible? While some degree of surveillance capacity is arguably needed for lawful purposes within a democracy it is theoretically possible to design devices such that they have limited intercept and analysis capability out of the box. In essence, we could demand that certain degrees of friction are baked into the surveillance equipment that is developed, and actively work to prevent companies from producing highly scaleable and multifunctional surveillance equipment and software. Going forward, this could prevent the next sale of significant surveillance equipment to Iran on grounds that the West simply doesn’t have any for (legal) sale.

In the case of government surveillance inefficiency and lack of scaleability are advantageous insofar as they hinder governmental surveillance capabilities. Limited equipment would add time and resources to surveillance-driven operations, and thus demand a greater general intent to conduct surveillance than when authorities have access to easy-to-use, advanced and scalable, surveillance systems.

Legal frameworks are insufficient to protect citizens’ rights and privacy, as has been demonstrated time and time again by governmental extensions or exploitations of legal frameworks. We need a normatively informed limitation of surveillance equipment that is included in the equipment at the vendor-level. Anything less will only legitimize, rather than truly work towards stopping, the spread of surveillance equipment that is used to monitor citizens across the globe.