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Sam Bocetta
Contributing writer

Huawei and Apple smartphones are both made in China – why is only one banned in Australia?

Mar 18, 20196 mins
AppleData and Information SecurityData Privacy

While Chinese smartphone manufacturer Huawei has been banned from the Australian 5G network rollout, Apple was welcomed with open arms despite also using China to produce phones. So, what’s the difference?

It feels like there is no more controversial brand in the tech industry right now than Huawei.

The Chinese telco giant was recently banned by Australia from participating in their 5G network rollout amidst national security concerns, and its CFO—Meng Wanzhou—was recently arrested in Canada for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The growing concern regarding the company is that it may be acting as a spy for the Chinese government, collecting personal data and influencing politics.

Apple is not subject to the Australian ban, which raises the question—is there any significant difference between Huawei and Apple—both of which manufacture devices in China?

Huawei’s rise in popularity

Did you know that Huawei sold more smartphones than Apple in the second quarter of 2018? While Huawei still remains a distant second to Apple in terms of total earnings, the company is most definitely rising up the ranks and becoming one of the biggest names in technology, behind Apple and Samsung.

However, increased scrutiny from around the globe regarding potential ties to the Chinese government has presented understandable concern, and led to lackluster sales in the United States, even while sales throughout the rest of the world have been very high.

The question is, has Beijing started to influence control over Huawei, perhaps even accessing customer information?

Huawei vs. Apple smartphones

Given the recent controversy surrounding Huawei, some have floated the idea that Apple may be a privacy-compromised product as well since both companies produce their wares behind the world’s most stout communist curtain.

However, critics argue that there is a distinction between Huawei and Apple that shouldn’t be ignored, countering that the primary difference is that Huawei is a Chinese company, while Apple is an American company that just so happens to build products in China.

Though some accuse Chinese tech giants like Huawei of not being free of Communist Party influence, critics remain adamant that China cannot have the same influence over Apple products.

In fact, some experts claim much of the hysteria regarding Huawei has been incited by U.S. competitors who see the brand has a threat to their sales and wouldn’t be above a little fearmongering to limit its market share.

The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, has gone on the record to say the company would “definitely” refuse a request from the Chinese government for customer information.

Growing intelligence community concerns

The backlash toward Huawei is not paranoia gone wild on the part of consumers and rival U.S. companies. The Five Eyes alliance (U.S, Canada, U.K., New Zealand and Australia) have all raised concerns about privacy on Huawei smartphones, with both Australia and New Zealand banning the company from their 5G networks on the basis of protecting national security.

The intelligence community recognizes that smartphones contain a wealth of information and are naturally sought after by foreign governments, particularly hostile ones.

Though China is known for wearing a pleasant face to the rest of the world, the country is also notorious for online censorship. Therefore, it is not out of the question that the Chinese government would attempt to spy on people through smartphones. However, tech insiders argue it’s not the company but the profile that consumers should be concerned about.

Some insiders claim that it is highly unlikely that every Huawei phone listens in on its owner by default, but rather that any individual who is of an interest to the Chinese government could be at risk of being monitored.

Are Apple smartphones more secure?

There is a general consensus that Apple products like iPhones are more secure compared to smartphones produced by other manufacturers. For example, Apple iOS is well regarded for higher levels of scrutiny over what apps are deemed acceptable where Android has no limitations and is considered an “open source operating system.”

Though the products are made in China, most argue that Apple continues to closely monitor and scrutinize its own supply chain and would keep a sharp eye on any apparent risk of their phones being compromised by the Chinese government.

Still, imaginations ran wild in the wake of concern that President Donald Trump was spied on by Chinese and Russian officials as a result of conversations conducted on his personal iPhone.

Furthermore, Apple recently announced a partnership with a Chinese government-owned company to operate its iCloud servers, prompting more concern.

Data privacy and Huawei smartphones

Most everyone would admit that Huawei could, theoretically, pass information to the Chinese government (if they aren’t already doing so). That being the case, it’s important that users consider encrypting their browsing experience via a virtual private network (VPN) when using a smartphone product made in China, be it Huawei or Apple.

VPNs were created specifically for users to connect to the internet without risking identity exposure, and are growing in popularity with 25% of people who go online using one. But what if we were to tell you that more than half of all VPN services in the world are owned by China? Nearly 60% of all free VPN services offered on the Google Play Store and App Store are owned by Chinese companies, including many popular Canadian VPN services.

In theory, VPN services should encrypt your browsing session and make it impossible for an observer to decipher the data that passes through its tunnel during online use. But to ensure that your device—be it Huawei, Apple, Samsung or any other—is truly private, refrain from the temptation of “free” VPNs and also stay away from those providers developed or based in China.

Reputation matters

The bottom line is that Apple has a reputation of providing better privacy and protection for U.S. customers. Many are reluctant to use a Huawei device at all, even with VPN protection.

The controversy surrounding these two mega-smartphone brands will surely continue into the future and is one that warrants monitoring. In case you weren’t aware, Huawei is a supplier of 45 of the world’s 50 largest mobile networks and telecommunications operators. That makes it a major player that can’t be ignored regardless of which side of the argument you land on.