with Tonya Riley

The United States's move to label Huawei as a national security threat and block it from billions of dollars in subsidies is its toughest move yet against the Chinese telecom. And with more allies poised to follow suit, Washington's uphill diplomatic campaign to isolate the company is at a turning point – and it's a sign of deepening fissure between the West and China. 

U.S. officials have long accused Beijing of using Huawei and other companies to spy on Americans and steal U.S. companies’ data. But their arguments are gaining traction now amid Western anger over China’s dissimulation about the initial spread of the coronavirus and more recently by its crackdown on Hong Kong. 

Huawei’s reputation in the United Kingdom is souring as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is increasingly signaling he’ll step away from a plan to allow Huawei to build parts of the nation’s next-generation 5G wireless networks. 

And other Western nations such as Germany, Australia and Canada are expressing more concerns about Chinese influence over their computer networks. 

People look at the Chinese government concealing what it knew about covid and they look at Hong Kong and what you hear from Europe is, ‘We don’t think we can trust them,' ” said Jim Lewis, a former U.S. government cybersecurity official who is now senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “They’re saying that irrespective of the message coming from the U.S. and Trump.” 

The Federal Communications Commission's action against Huawei came hours before Trump again took aim at China for the pandemic's spread: 

The pivot away from Chinese technology is coming from allies who previously expressed differing levels of concern about Huawei. 
  • Germany, which has refused so far to ban Huawei from its 5G networks, is nevertheless launching a major program to reduce reliance on foreign components in its telecommunications systems and other vital networks.
  • Canada also resisted U.S. pressure to outright ban Huawei, but its telecoms have mostly picked European suppliers as they build 5G systems.
  • Australia, which banned Huawei from 5G networks even before the United States did, is launching a roughly $1 billion program to boost national cybersecurity defenses after uncovering a massive data breach that affected all levels of government and that was reportedly launched from China.

Officials say the dangers of an adversary hacking 5G networks is far greater than earlier generations of networks because they will carry exponentially more data and power a new generation of Internet-connected devices such as smart cars and factories. 

The FCC move brings to fruition more than a year of efforts to cut ties between U.S. phone and Internet providers and Huawei.

By labeling the Chinese telecom a national security threat, the commission effectively stops the flow of $8.3 billion in federal money to providers in rural and low-income areas unless they rid their systems of Huawei parts. It also applies to the Chinese telecom ZTE, which the FCC also labeled a national security risk. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recounted a litany of standard U.S. charges against the companies as he announced the move. 

Those include that they’re too closely tied to the Chinese communist government and are either already using their access to U.S. networks to spy on Americans or could easily be compelled to do so. 

The companies have consistently denied those charges. Huawei didn't respond to a request for comment. 

The move came just days after the Pentagon included Huawei on a list of firms backed by the Chinese military, easing the path for the Trump administration to impose additional penalties on the company.  

It also comes after a year of increasingly harsh restrictions by the White House and Commerce Department including banning Huawei from building U.S. 5G networks and blocking U.S. companies from selling components to the company. Most recently, the Commerce Department restricted foreign companies that sell computer chip parts within the United States from doing business with Huawei – a move that made it increasingly difficult for the company to compete globally. 

China hawks in Congress were quick to applaud the FCC move. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called Huawei “a direct threat to our national security.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) called the move vital to securing U.S. critical infrastructure:

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said the move would “keep American networks secure from bad actors.”

The move faced criticism, however, from rural wireless providers that are most dependent on the federal aid and most likely to use Huawei. 

The Rural Wireless Association said in a statement that it was “stunned” by the decision. The trade association fretted it would put carriers in a “precarious situation,” especially as they struggle to provide services amid a surge in Internet and phone use during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The order allows carriers to request waivers if they can’t remove their Huawei and ZTE gear right away. The group asked the FCC to give carriers extra time to submit those waivers before they lose the subsidies. 

The keys

Vote-by-mail elections in Colorado and Utah took place without major fireworks.

The elections effectively marked a public demonstration of the voting method that has been savaged by President Trump but that  election experts say will be vital for running a safe and secure general election contest in November. 

There were no major hiccups or reports of fraud as of this morning. Trump has claimed without evidence that mail voting leads to widespread fraud. 

Jocelyn Bucaro, Denver's director of elections, showed how mail voting and early voting days helped prevent long lines on Election Day:

Oklahoma also held its primary yesterday.

A digital paper trail helped convince intelligence agencies Russia was offering bounties for U.S. troops.

The intercepted records of financial transactions bolstered the case that Russia paid the Taliban for killing Americans an allegation that has outraged lawmakers and put the Trump administration on defense, the New York Times reports

The Times doesn’t report on how U.S. officials intercepted the digital data but says the findings were bolstered from interrogations and other human sources. The White House, which is under fire for not responding to the alleged targeting of troops, has said the president was not briefed on the findings and intelligence agencies did not find them credible. 

Findings from the financial data were not included in a briefing Trump officials gave several House Republicans, the Times reports. 

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports the National Security Agency, the government’s main digital intelligence collector, dissented from other agencies’ conclusion Russia paid the bounties. The Journal described the dissent as a relatively common disagreement within the intelligence community about what various pieces of information add up to.

Digital spying on partners and spouses has spiked during the pandemic, researchers say. 

Three anti-virus companies have noted the spike since social distancing measures began, Shannon Vavra at CyberScoop reports. One of them, the California-based Malwarebytes observed a spike of nearly 200 percent.

Stalkerware apps are often billed as parental monitoring tools or for other innocuous purposes. But researchers say abusers use the apps to spy on their victims' messages, location and other phone data without permission. The apps are designed to be imperceptible to victims.

When victims are quarantined with abusive partners, the spyware can make it even more difficult for them to reach out for help. “Stalkerware throws a wrench into a lot of things. A lot of the go-to safety plans might be more challenging if there’s stalkerware on the phone,” Erica Olsen, the safety net director for National Network to End Domestic Violence, told CyberScoop.

Yet stalkerware apps are still easily found on Apple's App store. Apple removed one such app called Highster after CyberScoop contacted Apple about the app. Highster downloads were among those that jumped during the pandemic, according to researchers at the cybersecurity firm Lookout.

Hill happenings

GOP members have been skipping House Intelligence Committee meetings on key issues since the pandemic began.

Republicans say they're concerned the virtual hearings are at risk of cyberattacks and that sensitive intelligence should be discussed in person, Martin Matishak at Politico reports.

House Intelligence Chair Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told Politico the no-shows were childish and “counterproductive.” Democratic committee staff also criticized Republicans’ concerns about cybersecurity as unfounded.

Securing the ballot

The Biden campaign is demanding Facebook take down misleading Trump statements about voting by mail. 

A recent letter sent by the campaign took at aim at Trump's posts claiming without evidence that voting by mail is a major source of electoral fraud. The campaign says the misleading posts amount to voter suppression, Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker report. That would put them in violation of Facebook's content standards.

The campaign also raised concerns that Facebook has reworked its policies to accommodate Trump. Facebook has denied the claim.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone did not respond directly to the request but said Facebook appreciate[s] the concerns raised by the Biden campaign.” 

More election security news:

Daybook

  • The House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on U.S.-China relations and its impact on national security and intelligence in a post-coronavirus world on Wednesday at 12 p.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the EARN IT Act on Thursday at 10 a.m.

Secure log off

We know that not everyone in cybersecurity is a self-professed nerd but…this is still a good video.