Huawei is receiving rave reviews for its latest handset, the P20 Pro. Even in the United States, where the phone isn’t on sale, reviewers are importing the device to declare it the phone of the year. The praise is understandable – it pushes the camera past its nearest competitors and is arguably the prettiest phone ever built.
And yet… I find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend this phone in the current climate.
The P20 Pro adds a little flair to post-iPhone X devices; there’s the familiar giant OLED screen, thin bezels and a notch, available in glossy black or rose gold as well as and a stunning gradient variant called “Twilight”. Instead of pulling in data through two lenses and using smarts to create portrait mode, the P20 has three rear-facing cameras to work with.
This is not just a gimmick, nor a copycat move. Huawei has long been an early innovator in smartphone photography, starting the modern trend of dual lens cameras.
Beneath the main camera bump are Leica-designed 40MP colour and 20MP monochrome lenses. Both take impressive shots in their own right, but combined they create stunning portrait images that best the current flagship cameras. A third lens steps in to enable incredibly sharp, noise free images in low light. And because all three lenses use the same optical image stabilisation, images are always clear without a tripod needed.
So what’s the problem?
In short, it’s impossible to review a Huawei device without mentioning security. In February, the CIA, FBI, NSA and the director of national intelligence told a Senate Intelligence Committee that Americans should avoid buying phones from the company. It’s little wonder, then, that the P20 is not on sale in the States.
Closer to home, Huawei was banned from bidding for NBN contracts as far back as 2013.
If the US slaps Huawei with a trade embargo, as they did to rival Chinese handset maker ZTE, Australia would likely follow the embargo, leaving Huawei customers in Australia without support. That suggests a Huawei warranty could be dependent on the constant and unpredictable trade negotiations between China and Donald Trump’s administration.
I contacted Huawei for a response but, a week later and despite numerous follow-ups, I didn’t receive one.
Do consumers need to worry?
While Huawei and ZTE have had a spotlight shone on them because of their high-level dealings with Western governments, they’re certainly not the only globally popular Chinese smartphone brands. OnePlus is currently launching its much-anticipated OnePlus 6, Xiaomi sells a global version of its flagship Mi MIX 2 in Australia, and Oppo’s R11s is a popular choice to bundle with low-cost plans at Optus and Vodafone.
Huawei also sells phones under the brand name Honor in Europe, and says it’s sold more than a million units of its new phone — the Honor 10 — worldwide after less than a month on the market.
The phones all boast a high level of performance and attractive designs, at comparable or much lower prices than other flagship phones. So, are smartphones from China-based companies safe to use?
Most experts maintain that smartphones distributed by Chinese companies pose no specific security threats to ordinary consumers – with a few caveats.
Patrick Gray, security expert and host of the Risky Business podcast, says he’d generally be pretty comfortable using a Huawei phone. However, he says that if he were an executive at BHP he wouldn’t go near one.
“The security concerns around Huawei mostly relate to its telecommunications equipment. The concern is the Chinese government can pressure Huawei into doing its bidding; that could be anything from giving Chinese government network spooks early access to vulnerability information, through to actually backdooring the technology,” he says.
“For most people the handsets should be fine from a security perspective, but it really depends on who you are. If you’re a likely target of Chinese espionage — a mining company executive, for example — I’d give them a miss.”
As John Davidson of AFR notes, “even if Huawei [is] watching, it would never be any worse than Facebook, which isn’t just the subject of vague, unspecified security concerns but actually is guilty of numerous, monumental breaches of user privacy, and which people willingly use in spite of that fact.”
Mr Gray says that the protections provided by Google’s Android operating system should keep consumers secure, and that the biggest security issues are the same across all Android phones. Users should keep their system up to date and be diligent about what they download.
“The Google Play Store is a bit of a malware dumpster fire,” Mr Gray says. “So users just generally need to be careful that the apps they’re installing are coming from trustworthy developers.”
Of course keeping the devices up to date could become difficult if Chinese companies are forced out of Western markets due to these security concerns. ZTE, for example, is facing tough penalties in the US for its trade sanction violations. In Australia Telstra has already stopped selling ZTE devices, which it rebranded with names like Telstra Flip and Telstra Tough.
In conclusion, while Chinese phones are generally safe to use in Australian, if any of these companies are sanctioned out of existence it will become a problem for existing customers. Buy at your own risk.