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Google’s ties to Chinese telecom firm Huawei raise alarm in Congress

Huawei headquarters in Shenzhen, China. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Key members of Congress on Thursday took aim at Google’s relationship with Huawei, a Chinese telecom firm with alleged ties to the government in Beijing, out of fear it may have exposed smartphone users’ text messages and other data to privacy and security threats.

In a letter sent to Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said the tech giant’s deals with Huawei and two other Chinese companies, Xiaomi and Tencent, raise “serious national security concerns.” He pressed the search giant to detail more information about the data it may have shared with the firms and where it is stored — and he issued a similar request to Twitter.

The new attention adds to the mounting pressure on Silicon Valley about its sometimes-secret data-swapping practices. It could also further heighten trade tensions between the United States and China, which the U.S. government often has criticized for its digital snooping.

A Google spokeswoman said the company had “agreements with dozens” of device makers around the world. “We do not provide special access to Google user data as part of these agreements, and our agreements include privacy and security protections for user data,” the company said.

Spokespeople for Twitter and Huawei did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Republicans, meanwhile, signaled Thursday that they could also take action against Google and other tech giants soon. Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is looking into the matter, a spokeswoman said. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) similarly has raised concerns about Google’s relationship with Huawei.

The new scrutiny comes days after Facebook confirmed a report in The Washington Post that it had brokered a special data-sharing arrangement with Huawei and three other Chinese technology companies. The pressure on Google was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook and Google’s partnerships with Huawei — the third-largest smartphone maker in the world — have stoked the ire of lawmakers who have long feared the Chinese firm has ties to the country’s communist leaders. Concerns about eavesdropping and other security threats previously led the Pentagon this spring to cease selling Huawei devices on its military bases. Some lawmakers even reportedly pressured AT&T to stop selling Huawei phones.

The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, has been considering a proposal that would prevent recipients of key federal telecom funds from purchasing equipment from Huawei and ZTE, another firm believed to have ties to the Chinese government.

Lawmakers sounded their loudest alarms about Huawei in 2012: Investigators on the House Intelligence Committee said they had heard numerous allegations” from U.S. companies that Huawei had sent data to computers in China in an unauthorized manner. Huawei rejected the allegations, stressing its independence from Beijing.

This time, some of Warner’s trouble with Huawei stems from an agreement brokered by the Chinese firm and Google over text messaging. In January, the companies announced that Huawei-manufactured phones, which already run on Google’s Android operating system, would also take advantage of Google’s special text-messaging technology. It essentially allows smartphone owners the ability to send media-rich texts to friends and family more easily.

To that end, the Democratic lawmaker asked Google to detail whether its partnership with Huawei — and other Chinese firms, like Xiaomi, a device maker, and Tencent, a tech company — stored data in local servers or if they relied on vendors like Lenovo. Warner said Lenovo had similarly been flagged for major security vulnerabilities that left it open to exploitation by Chinese intelligence services.

Earlier this week, lawmakers criticized Facebook for its Huawei ties. In response, Facebook said it sought to share data only with the Chinese device maker — and about 60 others, including HTC and Samsung — so its users could more easily access its services. Some of Facebook’s partnerships with companies like Apple, for example, allowed users to sync their contact lists or download their friends’ profile photos.

Privacy advocates have stressed that Facebook users may not have been fully aware of these arrangements. One report even showed that BlackBerry, one of Facebook’s device partners, may have accessed more data from the social site than it should have. Its ties with Huawei have drawn added scorn from its critics, especially on Capitol Hill, where Mark Zuckerberg testified earlier this year.

“The bottom line is these revelations are yet another example of questionable business practices by Facebook that could undermine basic consumer privacy,” charged Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, during a speech on the chamber floor Wednesday.