Lawmakers scrutinize Google, Twitter's relationship with Chinese phone makers

Lawmakers scrutinize Google, Twitter's relationship with Chinese phone makers
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Lawmakers are probing more technology companies’ relationships with Chinese phone makers amid concerns over those phone-makers' scope of access to user data.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe next pandemic may be cyber — How Biden administration can stop it Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Social media posts, cellphone data aid law enforcement investigations into riots MORE (D-Va.) on Thursday sent letters to the CEOs of Twitter and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, seeking information on the companies' partnerships with electronics makers including Huawei, ZTE and Lenovo.

Citing reports from tech trade press and The New York Times, Warner addressed concerns from Americans and intelligence agencies about data-sharing between the tech companies and Chinese phone-makers.


In his letters, Warner noted intelligence agencies' warnings that certain phone-makers' products have security vulnerabilities that could allow Chinese intelligence to access any data stored on or transmitted by them. 

"In 2012 alone, there were more than 200 million monthly users on Twitter," Warner wrote in his letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The possibility of Chinese vendors with documented ties to the Chinese Communist Party having access to Facebook's private API (and potentially Twitter's) — particularly as China develops tools to harness individual-level data for surveillance and social control — raises serious national security concerns."

Warner echoed parallel concerns to Alphabet CEO Larry Page.

Criticism of the partnerships come amid heightened concerns among some U.S. lawmakers who fear China could pose a national security threat.

Congressional aides confirmed that other lawmakers, including Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (R-Ark.), Rep. Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayThompson named top Republican on Agriculture Bottom line House Republican introduces amendment to include farm aid in stopgap funding bill MORE (R-Texas) and Rep. Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerBottom Line North Carolina reporter says there could be 'new crop' of GOP candidates in 9th Congressional District race North Carolina board calls for new election in contested House race MORE (R-N.C.), plan to express criticism of Google over its partnership with Huawei.


The congressmen intend to contrast Google’s partnership with Huawei against the company’s decision earlier this week not to renew its contract with the Department of Defense, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported lawmaker scrutiny.

Google established a deal with Huawei in January allowing the Chinese phone-maker's devices to use Google’s Android Messages service to send texts and photos. Huawei phones also use Google’s Android mobile operating system.

Like Facebook, Google has also partnered with other device-makers based in a number of countries.

The review of Google’s dealings with Huawei come amid lawmaker scrutiny of Facebook for its data-sharing partnerships with multiple Chinese device makers — including Huawei. Facebook said it would wind down its data sharing arrangement with the company by the end of the week.

Lawmakers, including Warner, have been critical of Facebook’s data sharing partnerships with China.


“The news that Facebook provided privileged access to Facebook’s API to Chinese device makers like Huawei and TCL raises legitimate concerns, and I look forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured that information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers,” Warner said in a statement on Tuesday.

Fearing national security implications, some members of Congress have ratcheted up efforts this year to cut off certain Chinese technology companies' access to the U.S. — namely Huawei and ZTE.

Lawmakers successfully pressured AT&T to back out of a deal to sell Huawei phones earlier this year.

But, on Thursday, the Commerce Department announced that it had reached a deal to lift a ban imposed earlier this year on Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE.

The department is set to impose a $1 billion penalty against ZTE and employ a U.S.-selected compliance team, which will be embedded in the firm. The team will stay at ZTE for 10 years and report to U.S. officials on the company's conduct.

“The purpose of this settlement is to modify ZTE’s behavior while setting a new precedent for monitoring to assure compliance with U.S. law,” the Commerce Department said in a statement.

Bipartisan lawmakers had cautioned against efforts to ease sanctions on ZTE, approving an amendment late last month to block President TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call MORE's pledge to ease restrictions that had effectively cut off the company from U.S. business dealings.

The initial ban came in response to violations of U.S. sanctions by ZTE that were considered a national security threat by U.S. officials.

In May, the Pentagon banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones on military bases over fears that the company’s technology could be used by the Chinese government for espionage. The ban followed underlying concerns from a 2012 report from Congress that warned the companies' technology could be used by the Chinese government to conduct surveillance on the U.S.