Taiwanese consumers who use Chinese-made smartphones do so at their own peril, according to National Cheng Kung University electrical engineering professor Li Jung-shian, who previously headed the cybersecurity wing at Taiwan’s National Center of High-Performance Computing. In Professor Li’s view, the success of low-cost Huawei smartphones in Taiwan may continue to jeopardize the island’s national security, despite its business-to-business base station gear and devices being banned.

Li told the Liberty Times in a recent interview that the ramifications and security risks arising from the continued use of Huawei’s consumer electronic products must not be ignored.

Li said he found “mystery firmware” – instructions to a device that are stored on chips rather than in programs – in Huawei’s smartphones sold in Taiwan, including what appeared to be hidden back doors in complex operating systems and subsystems. However he admitted that locating such back doors is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“If you find one cockroach in your home, you must assume more are hiding somewhere, and the same applies to your gadgets,” said Li.

Huawei phones in use in Taiwan may also still be able to access an unprotected 4G network to collect and transmit information back to China at different network layers. This can occur even when suspicious connections made from within an intranet or through back doors are blocked by rigorous encryption and firewalls aimed at protecting government computer systems and 5G trial networks.

Smartphones are capable of forming a diffused source database, and there are very few viable technical solutions available to protect sensitive information from being accessed without completely banning such devices, according to the expert.

Taiwan should thus keep a tally of the import and sale of all telecoms and personal devices carrying a Chinese brand, or manufactured in the country, he argues.

People queue up outside a Huawei store in Taipei prior to a new product launch event. Photo: Facebook

Despite Huawei being blocked from government procurements, the Chinese tech giant has still been able to set up a number of stores across Taiwan to market its phones and other products. Huawei smartphones now enjoy a rising market share among price-sensitive consumers.

Claims such as those of Beijing having round-the-clock surveillance of Huawei users could be far-fetched, but Li has flagged the threat to privacy and personal information. If one sticks to a phone from China that may contain back doors programmed into it or unintended software loopholes, the risk of the user’s location, calls, messages, personal files and passwords being exposed cannot be ruled out.

Huawei, for its part, has decried the US-led ban, insisting it will be exonerated and that the ban will not stand in the way of its brand achieving strong market results and technical success.

The company’s latest bid to assuage public concern is the establishment of a state-of-the-art cybersecurity center in Brussels, responsible for business and services across Europe.

Yet some observers have still sounded the alarm on what they call an “inherent threat”, as Beijing can telegraph its imperative to Huawei at any time, and there are regulations and laws such as the National Security Law in place in China that force companies to comply with the state’s intelligence-gathering efforts.