Huawei phone crisis: What you need to know and what you need to do

If you own a Huawei device you need to read this

A man takes a picture of a Huawei logo at the Huawei European Cybersecurity Center in Brussels. File photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

A man takes a picture of a Huawei logo at the Huawei European Cybersecurity Center in Brussels. File photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

Don’t tell me I’ve just been caught up in Donald Trump’s trade war with China? Um, well, sort of. If you have a Huawei phone, then we have some bad news for you. But we also have some good news.

Can we start with the bad news? Right so. Last Thursday US president Donald Trump added the Chinese phone maker to a trade blacklist and said US companies would be restricted from doing business with it. Then, on Monday, Google said it would enact restrictions on Android updates to Huawei. Huawei, like other phone makers, use Google’s Android phone eco system.

What does that mean? “We are complying with the [Trump] order and reviewing the implications,” a Google spokesman said. Meanwhile, sources within Google made it very clear Huawei would only be able to use the public version of Android and would be denied access to proprietary apps and services from Google.

At the risk of repeating myself, what does that mean? It means Google will deny Huawei access to some of the most basic features that make phones smart including its Play Store, where you get your apps, and its own apps including Gmail, Google Maps and YouTube.

Hang on, so I won’t be able to use Gmail on my phone and will have to ask people for directions like someone from the 1900s? Steady on. This is where we come to the good news. Nothing bad has happened yet. Google has made it clear that people who already own Huawei products will still be able to access all the Google functions and its security software will continue to work as normal. Huawei also said it would continue to provide security updates and services for its smartphones and tablets. That means that the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who own a Huawei device are grand.

So it is all a Trump-inspired storm in a teacup? Sadly, no. While Huawei will not be barred from basic updates to the Android open-source software it may soon be barred from working with Android on more advanced development. And it looks likely that Google’s apps and services will not be available for new Huawei phones. Security updates will become a concern and in the future devices issued by the company may lack the reliability of other Android phones.

When it all this happening? Well, on Monday, it was all happening immediately. But then overnight the US issued a 90-day reprieve for companies dealing with the Chinese tech giant and said breathing space was needed to avoid huge disruption. A Commerce Department filing said the delay would not change the ban but it granted a temporary license to allow Huawei to continue doing business with American firms. “The Temporary General License grants operators time to make other arrangements and [gives] the Department space to determine the appropriate long-term measures for Americans and foreign telecommunications providers that currently rely on Huawei equipment for critical services,” said US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

What can I do if I have a Huawei phone? The best thing to do right now is probably nothing. The editor of Which? Computing Kate Bevan has suggested that some recent purchasers of Huawei devices could consider returning their phones. “It’s unacceptable for consumers to be left without adequate security on their mobiles and Huawei owners will be seeking urgent reassurance that the safety of their devices will not be compromised,” she said. “In this situation, your consumer rights are limited as there’s currently nothing faulty with these phones. However, if you purchased a phone in recent weeks it may be worth checking the retailer’s returns policy.”

And will my operator give me a new handset? We doubt it. For a start they can quite legitimately say there is nothing wrong with the handset you have right now. And they can make the valid point that even in the future if anything is wrong with your handset it is totally beyond their control.

What are the operators doing? They are struggling to work out what impact it will all have on their businesses. “We are reviewing the details of the executive order to understand any potential implications for our customers,” said Telefonica, Europe’s third largest mobile operator.

When will I have to update my Huawei phone? This is a bit more good news. The next big update – Android 10 – is not due until some point in the autumn. Even then it should be possible for you not to upgrade the software and work on the older version for the next year or two. Other apps will continue to work as normal although if the Trump trade war worsens – which is always possible – all the big players including Facebook – and by extension Instagram and Whatsapp – are likely to be caught up in the row too. Companies such as chip-makers Qualcomm and Intel are also withdrawing their technology from Huawei as a result of the US trade policy.

Anything else I need to know? Well, it might be worth considering the likely impact this will have on the roll-out of 5G across the EU. Critics of the company have said its heavy involvement in what is likely to be a key communications infrastructure is a security risk because of alleged links between the firm and the Chinese state. Huawei has always denied the claims.

Could this all blow over? Yes. But Trump has invested a lot of time and energy and even more tweets in the row, while the founder of Huawei Ren Zhengfei also seems pretty defiant and has said the US “underestimates” the company’s strength. He has said the company can make its own chips and “can’t be isolated” from the world. “The current practice of US politicians underestimates our strength,” he told Chinese media. “Huawei’s 5G will absolutely not be affected. In terms of 5G technologies, others won’t be able to catch up with Huawei in two or three years.”

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