I’m spending a couple of days in Thailand at Huawei’s Asian Innovation Day. That’s somewhat ironic since this morning the New York Times ran a story about Facebook offering deep user access to four Chinese vendors, including Huawei. I have no financial relationship with Huawei but have spent a few years watching the company and have opined previously about the weird posture that the US government takes when it comes to the Chinese company. As the Times told it:

Facebook has data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies, including a manufacturing giant that has a close relationship with China’s government, the social media company said on Tuesday. The agreements, which date to at least 2010, gave private access to some user data to Huawei, a telecommunications equipment company that has been flagged by American intelligence officials as a national security threat, as well as to Lenovo, Oppo and TCL.

Apart from the fact that it is somewhat inflammatory to describe a company like Huawei in this way, as a colleague of mine, who spends his life shuttling around the world doing telecommunications consulting responded to me:

The @nytimes headline referring to @Huawei as “A Chinese Firm Flagged by U.S. Intelligence” and not just “Huawei” or maybe “the largest telecoms equipment manufacturer in the world” was a shocker.

Why does Facebook share data?

It might come as a shock to the New York Times’ writers, but Facebook has these sort of relationships with all hardware manufacturers. Not to allow them to take all your data and sell it to the highest bidder, but rather to offer users the best user experience possible. The handset business is a cutthroat one, especially given the fact that one of the biggest mobile operating systems (Android) is open source and hence available to all.

Every handset manufacturer tries to find ways to tailor their system to increase “stickiness.” While most of you will think of all of those Android customizations that Samsung, Huawei, and others do as something of a pain, what they’re trying to do is increase the “stickiness” – that is the chances that a user will grow attached to that manufacturer’s particular flavor of device and, when the inevitable upgrade cycle occurs, be more likely to buy the same make of device.

So, what they do is take different streams of data about the user and use that data to customize the experience. As I explained in a series of tweets:

Fascinating to be attending a @Huawei event the day the @nytimes breaks a story about @facebook giving four Chinese companies (including Huawei) access to an extensive API. Obviously, in the days of Cambridge Analytica and Kogen, the perception here isn’t good but look beyond the media headline, people, these are device makers that are able to offer a point of differentiation by giving users a deeper than normal level of experience and personalization. They do this by customizing the device to a particular user. To do that requires data. And so, of course, they leverage access to deep APIs to provide that integration. However, conflating that reality into some sort of “this company is spying on us and selling all the things to the Chinese government” is unhelpful and a conspiracy that is unhelpful to all concerned. The public needs to actually understand the issues and these knee-jerk proclamations don’t help build that level of understanding.

It’s all a bit of a beat up

As the article admitted, Huawei used its access to feed a “social phone” app that let users view messages and social media accounts in one place not, it should be noted, to gather information and pass it on to the Chinese government. Facebook responded to the New York Times article, explaining that:

All Facebook’s integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and TCL were controlled from the get-go — and Facebook approved everything that was built. Given the interest from Congress, we wanted to make clear that all the information from these integrations with Huawei was stored on the device, not on Huawei’s servers.

Rather than staying quiet in the face of a beat up, Huawei has made a comment and a spokesperson had this to say to me about the situation:

Like all leading smartphone providers, Huawei worked with Facebook to make Facebook’s services more convenient to users. Huawei has never collected or stored any Facebook user data.

MyPOV

In my view, this is a beat up. And one which is hypocritical given the US’s track record (thanks to Edward Snowden and friends for exposing) when it comes to privacy and security itself. This situation is exactly the same as that for other device manufacturers and Huawei would seem to be collateral damage in a huge groundswell of concern about Facebook and its approach to user data. By fanning the xenophobic fire that already exists, this story doesn’t do much either for international relations or citizens understanding of the realities of privacy.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • I agree with the central thesis that NYT is using a high profile, highly successful company as click bait, sensationalism. NYT do the same with Apple for the same reasons. It’s beneath them and that is sad. Often this tactic undermines their credibility. I also agree that no country and very few companies are pure. The pretense of morality superiority caters to a dangerous need on the part of readers to feel good by vilifying the “other” – scary. That said, Huawei has been caught with software that was bug for bug compatible with Cisco’s.

    The real problem is that Facebook “must” monetize their users personal data. Their stock price is based the success of this business model. As you point out, Huawei is just one of many customers that FB serves with the user data. That’s a major point. In contrast, Apple has the exact opposite business model. In the WWDC keynote, Apple spoke directly to this point and how they are specifically increasing the amount of protections of their customer-user’s data and privacy.

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