Huawei And ZTE Just Landed On The FCC's Worst Blocklist

In the most extreme move to date to address the reported security issues of Chinese-manufactured smartphones, the FCC has officially banned Huawei and ZTE handsets alongside several other makes. The devices now fall under the most restrictive level of FCC categorization.

The U.S. government has repeatedly cited security holes in Huawei and ZTE designs, and while the companies took various steps to comply with American regulations — Huawei even created spinoff Honor to license its phones to less legally troubled third parties — such efforts proved to be too little, too late.

Further movement on the issue is unlikely, at least in the short term. Many of the elements that the U.S. says compromise security are required under Chinese law, which asserts the right of the state to access data on privately owned electronics. In the United States, that issue has proven more fraught, and security backdoors required by China are considered to compromise both individual privacy and national security.

Clash of engineering cultures

As we've reported before, the fundamental problem the FCC and American law enforcement in general has with phones by Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese manufacturers is a vital design feature in the Chinese market. Chinese phones have to be accessible to Chinese government officials on demand. In the United States, multiple court decisions have asserted that no such right exists for American law enforcement.

That said, the issue is still undecided. The EFF has broken down the state of play, but as of October there is no across-the-board legal standard on whether law enforcement has the right to access an American's phone data. If they do have such a right, the data they collect and under what circumstances still isn't clear

It's a contentious issue — Apple famously went around and around with the FBI about decrypting the San Bernadino shooter's iPhone, as the New York Times reports — and one that isn't easily solved. For the present, all we know for sure is that the FCC will not allow phones engineered to grant easy government access to be sold on the American market.