Revolutionary Measures

Huawei – communicating innocence?

For this week’s blog it was a hard choice between focusing on what the rise of The Independent Group means to political PR, and how Chinese communications equipment giant Huawei is meeting its own communications and PR challenges. Given British politics is likely to have changed over the next week, and we’re currently in the middle of telecoms industry shindig Mobile World Congress (MWC), I’ll go for the Huawei option.

In many ways Huawei is a victim of its own success – from a brand that nobody knew how to pronounce a year ago, it has rocketed into the public consciousness, although not for all the right reasons. Allegations of potential backdoors in its communications kit that could allow the Chinese state to spy on data have led Donald Trump to call for it to be banned as a worldwide supplier to future 5G networks (Australia and New Zealand have obliged). At the same time its CFO has been arrested in Canada at the behest of the US, being accused of sanctions busting, and an employee arrested in Poland for alleged industrial espionage.

two person standing under lot of bullet cctv camera

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

And how has it responded? Essentially it has come out swinging, in a way that is either very confident, very arrogant or a combination of both. At MWC it has signalled that it wants to break the Apple/Samsung high end smartphone duopoly by launching one of the world’s first foldable phones, the Huawei Mate X, just a week after its Korean rival announced its own model.

It has also used MWC to go on the front foot and completely deny that there are or ever will be backdoors in its products, with its chairman Guo Ping stressing, “We don’t do bad things” and describing US accusations of security issues as lacking any evidence. Given the importance of 5G to a whole range of innovations, such as the Internet of Things, driverless cars, and being able to download a whole film in 6 seconds, questions about security are valid, whoever is providing the kit. But by going on the front foot and calling for industry solidarity, while having a pop at Trump, Huawei seems to feel confident that it can win doubters round.

And this isn’t the total of its comms strategy – there’s been a huge rise in glossy print advertising emphasising its trustworthiness (following a recent Facebook tactic), and it has been touting its relationship with Britain’s communications security agency, GCHQ as a model to follow. Under a partnership, GCHQ has been testing Huawei’s technology and will report back on any issues it finds. However, this has been undermined by a hardening of rhetoric, with GCHQ head, Jeremy Fleming, stressing the need to understand the opportunities and threats that China’s technology advances provide.

From a market position it is easy to worry about Huawei, as it has grown rapidly to a position of power in a key global industry as it is about to adopt new technology. Unlike other Chinese companies such as JD, Tencent and Alibaba which are focused on their domestic markets and developing companies, Huawei is unashamedly looking to lead on a worldwide scale. Not for nothing does its name translate as “Chinese Achievement”. And at time when we’re getting more conscious of our privacy, both individuals and governments are much more focused on who has access to our data. Despite its communications so far, Huawei hasn’t convinced security experts or even the general public of its benign intentions – it is difficult to prove a negative in an age of conspiracies and social media. My advice? Focus on openness and innovation, and the benefits of 5G, build relationships with the right experts and invest locally to get governments on side. And if you can sort out Brexit, you can spy on my communications all you like………….

February 27, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will the FBI take a bite out of Apple?

Apple has built itself into the largest quoted company in the world by being different. From the early days of the Macintosh computer, through the iconic iMac and onto the iPod, iPad and iPhone, its products have challenged the orthodox approach with a combination of design and features.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

It has extended this into the virtual world. Unlike competitors such as Google and Facebook, which have built businesses essentially based on collecting and selling personal data to advertisers, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy. In a speech in 2015 CEO Tim Cook stated, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.

This approach extends to protecting personal information stored on Apple devices and within iCloud. All iPhones and iPads are encrypted by default, meaning that even Apple itself cannot access the data on them. This obviously gives an unprecedented layer of protection for personal data, which has been particularly welcomed after Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by intelligence services on electronic communications.

However protecting normal citizens against hackers, criminals and terrorists is one thing, but what happens when the iPhone in question actually belongs to a terrorist? This is the current case, being hotly debated in the media and on social media. Following the San Bernadino terrorist shootings last year, the FBI recovered one of the perpetrator’s iPhones. Obviously this is locked with a 4 digit passcode, and simply cycling through all possible combinations is impossible – after a number of failed tries iPhones are programmed to erase all data to combat this type of brute force attack.

Consequently, the FBI has asked Apple to help, removing the erase feature from this specific phone and allowing it to try and guess the password electronically, rather than having to type in the potential 10,000 combinations. It has refused, rejecting a court order and issuing an open letter stating that it will not ‘hack itself’ and create an insecure back door into its products that could be exploited by others.

In many ways Apple has a point – even without the Snowden revelations, governments have a poor record of keeping backdoors safe. This was demonstrated by the US Transportation Security Administration, which mandated that all luggage manufacturers created a skeleton key that could be used to open any suitcase. A photo of the master key was accidentally printed in the Washington Post, allowing criminals to model and create it using 3D printers.

At the same time, the FBI is adamant that it is not asking for access to the backdoor itself – it says it is happy for Apple to disable the erase feature itself and provide access to the data, without telling the Feds how it was done. Essentially Apple is putting itself above the law, which has potentially chilling ramifications given its size, number of users and global reach. It isn’t the plucky underdog it was when the Mac first went up against the PC.

The high profile nature of the case, and the fact that it involves a proven terrorist further complicates matters – most right-thinking people would want to help the government in this scenario. Perhaps the wisest words have come from Bill Gates, who is calling for a wider debate on the balance between privacy and accessibility, irrespective of the case in hand.

As I’ve said before, a reputation for protecting user information is a central part of the Apple brand – and is only becoming more important as the company branches into payments (Apple Pay) and personal health data. Therefore its principled stance makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view. It may well have to eventually comply in some way, but it will have lived up to its promise to fight for privacy, keeping the rest of its community happy, and consequently protected its brand. However what the whole case shows is that we need a grown-up, rational debate about who has access to our personal data, under what circumstances and how they can access it.

February 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments