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The Cybersecurity 202: On Huawei policy, it's Trump vs. the Trump administration

with Bastien Inzaurralde


The world’s biggest mobile technology conference kicks off in Barcelona this morning with the Trump administration at war with itself over how to counter the threat Huawei poses to next generation wireless networks.

On one side are White House officials who spent months prepping an executive order that would effectively ban the Chinese telecom giant from any contracts to build 5G networks in U.S.  cities out of fear it could spy for the Chinese government – and they’d hoped to have that order in hand before the Mobile World Congress started.

On the other side is President Trump who seemed to scuttle those plans with a Friday morning tweet declaring the U.S. should win the 5G race “through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies.”

The mixed messages risk dramatically weakening the U.S.’s hand as officials try to convince allies that the benefits of Huawei’s cheaper technology don’t outweigh its risks -- including that the Chinese government could leverage Huawei's position to scoop up “trillions” of dollars of intellectual property and trade secrets from those nations’ companies. U.S. officials have quietly lobbied allies including the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany to exclude Huawei from their 5G networks with mixed success.

Trump’s comments drew a swift response from critics who accused the president of bargaining away national security in exchange for unrelated concessions on trade. 

“Auctioning off our national security is a bad idea,” tweeted Michael Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Trump’s tweet came as the U.S. and China are in the midst of high stakes trade negotiations. Trump tweeted Sunday that the sides were nearing a deal and had agreed to delay a March 1 deadline when both nations will drastically increase tariffs on the other’s goods.

Trump signaled that the U.S. stance on Huawei could be part of the ongoing trade discussions during an Oval Office press conference Friday, though he didn’t directly name the company.

‘I’d like to have all companies be able to compete,” Trump said in response to a question by the Chinese state-run China Daily. “I don’t want to artificially block people out based on excuses or based on security. I don’t want to have a security problem.”  

If Trump does soften the U.S. position on Huawei in exchange for trade concessions, that would undermine the work of intelligence officials who have warned Huawei poses a threat to national security, warned Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America think tank.

5G networks, which will be constructed over the next several years, will be roughly 20 times faster than existing 4G networks, enabling a previously impossible expansion of internet-driven technologies such as artificial intelligence -- and an economic windfall for nations whose companies control those networks. That increase in speed, however, means more companies will communicate using cellular networks rather than their own local systems – significantly increasing the potential damage if a U.S. adversary is spying on those networks.  

Huawei has consistently denied that it spies for the Chinese government.

The company's Chairman Guo Ping applauded Trump’s tweet at the Barcelona conference Sunday, saying it was “clear and correct” that the U.S. is lagging on 5G technology and that nations should cooperate to ensure 5G networks are secure against hacking.

“We need to have [a] unified standard that should be verifiable. It should not be based on politics,” Guo said as quoted by Reuters.

U.S. officials have never produced public evidence that Huawei spies for Beijing. They’ve warned U.S. companies and other organizations against using Huawei technology, however, saying that the Chinese government could compel such assistance and, under the Chinese system, Huawei would be powerless to refuse.

The U.S. government has already made some moves to restrict Huawei. 

Congress passed a law last year banning the company from U.S. government networks and the Federal Communications Commission is considering a rule that would effectively ban the company from rural and underserved networks. 


PINGED: The Democratic National Committee is urging political campaigns to take a series of security precautions, including using long, random and unique passwords and setting up multifactor authentication on their accounts, the Hill's Jacqueline Thomsen and Olivia Beavers reported. Those recommendations are part of an updated security checklist that the DNC has released to provide guidance to campaigns on securing both devices and accounts.

“At the DNC, we’ve put together a checklist of steps we are encouraging everyone to take — from presidential candidates down to field staff and volunteers — that will dramatically improve their security posture,” Bob Lord, chief security officer for the DNC, said in a statement, according to the Hill. “We are also here to assist campaigns in the creation of an overall security program that is tailored to their current landscape and challenges.”

The list also recommends using only mail services that are hosted by Microsoft and Google, encrypting laptop disks and using password managers. “We recommend you separate your personal and work accounts and data, and that also includes where you store passwords,” the document says. “Having separate personal and work password managers (with separate master passwords, of course) sounds like a lot of work, but with just a little practice it’s almost transparent.”

PATCHED: Israel's top cyber defense chief said the country's military thwarted an attempt by Iranian hackers to access the Israeli missile warning system, Bloomberg News's Gwen Ackerman reported. “We dealt with them and built another barrier and another monitoring system to make sure we could stop them if they tried again,” said Noam Shaar, the outgoing head of the cyber defense division in the Israeli army’s Cyber Defense Directorate, according to Bloomberg News. He said the Israeli military spotted the Iranian hackers' attempt to access the missile warning system in 2017. 

Shaar also said that international sanctions should be enacted against Tehran for its activities in cyberspace. “Iran’s proxies and allies also are involved in cyber assaults on Israel: Last year, the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers spied on Israeli soldiers with a fake dating app,” Ackerman wrote. “In another 2018 case, soldiers blocked apparent attempts by Hamas to breach a surveillance camera system, Shaar said.”

PWNED: Researchers said they found vulnerabilities in 4G and 5G networks that can allow phone calls to be intercepted, TechCrunch's Zack Whittaker reported. The flaws can also make it possible to track cellphone users' location. The first attack is named Torpedo and can lead to two other kinds of attacks, called Piercer and IMSI-Cracking. The Torpedo attack, which can affect  AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile systems, “exploits a weakness in the paging protocol that carriers use to notify a phone before a call or text message comes through,” according to TechCrunch. Radio equipment that costs $200 can be enough to execute a Torpedo attack.

“Any person with a little knowledge of cellular paging protocols can carry out this attack,” Syed Rafiul Hussain, who is among the co-authors of a research paper that identified the vulnerabilities, told TechCrunch. The GSMA, an industry group representing mobile operators, was informed of the vulnerabilities. “Hussain said the Torpedo and IMSI-Cracking flaws would have to be first fixed by the GSMA, whereas a fix for Piercer depends solely on the carriers,” Whittaker wrote. 


— Trump administration intelligence officials are discussing using a secure messaging system between the United States and Russia as an emergency communications tool should tensions flare in cyberspace, the Daily Beast's Erin Banco and Kevin Poulsen reported.

“Everything has been laid out on the table, all sorts of options of dealing with this cybersecurity threat. The hotline is something that came up in the context of us needing to really face this issue head on—and to know that Russia has received the message,” a senior intelligence official told the Daily Beast. “It’s the option we would use if we felt like all the other options weren’t working and if the crisis was escalating quickly. We’ve seen no signs that Russia has stopped meddling.”

The system was established in 2013 and is referred to as “cyberhotline.” according to the Daily Beast. The United States has used it once before: The Obama White House used the hotline in October 2016 to tell Russia that the U.S. government was aware of Moscow's attempts to interfere in the presidential election.

— New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) ordered an investigation after the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook accesses personal and intimate information that users share with many mobile apps, the Journal's Georgia Wells reported. “This practice, which in some cases clearly violates Facebook's own business terms, is an outrageous abuse of privacy,” Cuomo said in a statement. Some of the information that Facebook collects from apps includes users' blood pressure and menstrual cycles. Popular health and fitness apps are also scrambling to stop sending personal information to Facebook, the Journal reported

— More cybersecurity news from the public sector:

Stanislov Lisov pleads guilty to conspiracy for role in NeverQuest malware creation (CyberScoop)


Equifax Expects U.S., Canada Watchdogs to Press Cases Over 2017 Breach (The Wall Street Journal)

New Malware Campaign Targets Job Seekers (Dark Reading)


— The University of Washington Medicine said information about roughly 974,000 patients was exposed online, CyberScoop’s Jeff Stone reported. The data was exposed in December for at least three weeks. “A misconfigured database made visible patient names, medical record numbers, with whom the school shared patients’ medical information, and a description of what was shared, such as office vs. lab visits or patient demographic information,” according to CyberScoop. “In some cases, exposed files included the [patient's] name or a lab test that was performed, though not the result, or the name of a research study including the name of a health condition.”

— More news about security incidents:

ICANN warns of “ongoing and significant” attacks against internet’s DNS infrastructure (TechCrunch)

Payroll Provider Gives Extortionists a Payday (


— “Prosecutors in the treason trial of a top former Russian cybersecurity officer who was allegedly compromised by U.S. intelligence are seeking a 20-year prison term,” Bloomberg News's Stepan Kravchenko reported. “While few details have emerged about the secret case at Moscow district military court, there have been tantalizing threads potentially linking the central figures to espionage, election hacking and the breach of hundreds of millions of Yahoo! Inc email accounts.”

— More cybersecurity news from abroad:

Here's how GCHQ scours Huawei hardware for malicious code (Wired UK)



Coming soon:


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