By David Z. Morris
August 4, 2018

The Democratic National Committee has sent a warning to campaigns not to use phones or other devices from Chinese manufacturers ZTE and Huawei, “even if the price is low or free.” The warning echoes broad concerns that the two companies’ ties to the Chinese government make their devices a security risk, as the U.S. heads into midterm elections that are likely to be a major target of international espionage.

CNN reports that the warning was sent after the DNC learned that an unnamed Democratic organization was considering buying ZTE phones. The DNC’s chief security officer, Bob Lord, warned that Democratic campaigns or organizations should not use or purchase ZTE or Huawei devices “anywhere within your staff – for personal or work-related use.”

The message follows much broader warnings from CIA, NSA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence Agency officials, who have said in Senate testimony that Huawei and ZTE devices were security threats to any American user. FBI Director Chris Wray said using the companies’ devices “provides the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information” and “conduct undetected espionage” because of their ties to the Chinese government. The Pentagon has ordered military bases to stop selling phones from both ZTE and Huawei, saying that the devices “may pose an unacceptable risk to [the department’s] personnel, information and mission.” ZTE and Huawei have both rejected charges that they collaborate with the Chinese government in any way.

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The possibility of Chinese spying through cell phones or networking equipment would add another layer of uncertainty to a high-stakes U.S. midterm election. U.S. officials have been issuing frequent warnings of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere with the midterms, potentially including maneuvers similar to its leak of DNC emails in 2016. Though Russia and China are not quite allies today, there have been growing signs of friendliness between the countries, introducing the possibility of collaboration in undermining U.S. elections, and Western-style democracy more generally.

The new warning also returns attention to President Donald Trump’s inexplicable handling of recent sanctions against ZTE. In April, the Commerce Department imposed a ban on U.S. companies dealing with ZTE, after the company admitted to violating trade sanctions against exports to Iran and North Korea. Trump has frequently stoked fear of those two countries, and has started a trade war with China, yet pushed to reverse the ZTE ban. The Senate reversed Trump’s reversal in a bipartisan 85-10 vote in June, but the White House granted a second reprieve via Commerce Department rulemaking in July.

The strategic purpose of the Trump administration’s defense of ZTE remains far from clear. It was a moment of maximum leverage – Chinese phone makers are highly dependent on U.S. technology exports, particularly chips, and without access to U.S. suppliers, ZTE effectively shut down operations for a time. Trump extracted no apparent concessions from Chinese leadership in exchange for saving the company, but speculation has swirled that the moves were somehow tied to Trump’s private interests, including Chinese real estate deals with the Trump Organization.

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