When hackers bust into your phone, you could go after the hackers. Or, you could go after the phone—by building a new one. At least, that’s what the mandarins in the People’s Republic have decided to do. In what may be the ultimate response to smartphone security threats, China has asked a number of its high-tech and telecom companies (including ZTE Corporation, Alibaba Group Holding Limited, and others) to design an entirely home-grown smartphone, with an operating system (OS) to go with—one that’s impervious to intrusions by offshore cyber-spies.
The effort is, in part, a response to the bombshell dropped in whistleblower Edward Snowden’s massive dump of U.S. security documents back in 2013: that the U.S. National Security Agency has coded specific surveillance capability in certain hardware sold overseas, a practice euphemistically labelled “supply-chain interdiction.” In theory, such built-in backdoors can provide hackers with easy access to anyone who uses the device, or anyone connected to it via wireless or cell networks. Obviously of considerable value to those interested in either military or corporate espionage.
While Apple, Samsung, and other phone manufacturers tout their wares by listing the latest features, this new “securiPhone,” let’s call it, will be designed from the get-go with obsolescence in mind. Camera, GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi—all of these are likely to be omitted in order to close off any potential security vulnerabilities. Such a trade-off is likely to be worthwhile for police, the military, senior party officials, executives of state-owned enterprises and the like. For the average consumer, not so much.
Of course, security is only one of the incentives behind securiPhone; economics is another. If a made-in-China phone (or its OS, or its components) develops a reputation for un-hackability, this could lead to a brand reputation that could eventually take a big bite out of, say, Apple’s profits. Indeed, over the past several years, the Chinese government has made significant investments in related technologies—semiconductors, servers, operating systems—in an effort to break Silicon Valley’s grip on all things high-tech. In that regard, securiPhone may be all about exploiting a vulnerability rather than closing one.
Photo by Japanexperterna.se via Flickr.