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Huawei ban may be loosened, but details unclear

President Donald Trump promised to loosen trade restrictions on Huawei, while respecting national security concerns, but the details of the changes are still unclear.

President Donald Trump has announced plans to loosen the terms of the trade ban between U.S. companies and Huawei, but the details are unclear as to how national security concerns will be addressed.

At the recent G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, President Trump said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping planned to restart trade talks under the agreement that China would "begin purchasing large amounts of agricultural product" from American farmers, while the U.S. would loosen restrictions on the Huawei ban. The ban would still prohibit Huawei from selling products to U.S. companies, but U.S. companies would be allowed to sell to Huawei under certain conditions.

The Huawei ban came about via an executive order signed in May. Huawei was then added to the Entity List held by the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which designates companies and individuals with which U.S. businesses cannot trade. This proposed change would allow U.S. businesses to sell to Huawei as long as the product being traded would not affect national security.

The original executive order granted authority to prohibit transactions to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in consultation with "the heads of other executive departments and agencies." However, Attila Tomaschek, digital privacy advocate at ProPrivacy, noted that it was not made clear "what specific deals or what specific components would qualify as being a risk to national security."

"At any rate, the sudden U-turn by the president in the midst of an ongoing trade dispute with China could possibly suggest that the original ban was more of a negotiation tactic than in the greater interest of national security," Tomaschek said. "Other than being a boon for Huawei and for American component manufacturers, the move doesn't do much to rock the status quo in terms of risking national security since any deal posing a potential threat would still be subject to the ban."

Tomaschek added, "The president's abrupt change of position on U.S. dealings with the Chinese telecom giant was likely a result of lobbying efforts from tech manufacturers in the U.S. losing business over the ban, as well as threats from Beijing to compile a list of American companies deemed to be unreliable suppliers."

Members of Congress from both parties, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), voiced concern over any changes being made to the Huawei ban. Sen. Rubio even went so far as to promise Congress would pass "veto-proof" legislation to ensure that restrictions on Huawei remain in place.

Tomaschek noted that security concerns over Huawei from these members of Congress and international allies "are not backed by any hard evidence."

Any deal seen as a potential threat to national security won't be taken lightly and can certainly be cause for additional restrictions.
Attila TomaschekDigital privacy advocate, ProPrivacy

"The company's alleged ties to the Chinese government are enough to raise questions regarding the underlying motives of the company," he added. "In any case, legislation to reinstate the full ban likely won't be necessary. Huawei will still remain heavily on the U.S. radar, and any deal seen as a potential threat to national security won't be taken lightly and can certainly be cause for additional restrictions."

Terry Dunlap, a former National Security Agency offensive cyber operator and current co-founder and chief strategy officer at ReFirm Labs, said that although "intelligence findings have not been made public" regarding why Huawei is considered a security threat, he saw evidence during his time at NSA and continues to trust his intelligence colleagues.

"If U.S. companies are buying Huawei gear, they should be on guard and exercise extreme caution. All telecom gear coming from China that is placed into our critical infrastructure needs to undergo a thorough security vetting -- from top-layer applications all the way down to the firmware level, where we see backdoor implants," Dunlap said. "I think they should legislatively ban the product, if that's what it takes. We've warned people and companies to take these actions upon themselves; otherwise, the government will do it for them. It looks like the government may step in after all."

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