Australia Department of Defence Says It Has No Lenovo Policy, More Questions Arise

We reported that the secret and top secret agencies of several countries including Australia, the UK, and the U.S. had banned China-based Lenovo computers for fears of spying. Allegedly, the Lenovo machines could have backdoor access built into the hardware which would therefore allow Chinese hackers to access those agencies’ networks.

Predictably, Lenovo bristled at this allegation and informed us that Australia’s Department of Defence had posted a notice on its site stating that the report was incorrect:

Reports published on 27 and 29 July 2013 in the Australian Financial Review allege a Department of Defence ban on the use of Lenovo computer equipment on the Defence Secret and Top Secret Networks.

This reporting is factually incorrect. There is no Department of Defence ban on the Lenovo Company or their computer products; either for classified or unclassified systems.

For Lenovo’s part, the company said that it was not interested in further comment beyond the DoD statement above.

Lenovo HQ

However, that Australian DoD statement is only accurate insofar as it pertains to policies that would be signed by the Secretary of the Department of Defence. It does not preclude a business unit within the DoD from having its own policy against an entity like Lenovo—such as the IT department. We also understand that the Australian arm of the Defence Signals Directorate (which is comprised of multiple county members) doesn’t use any Lenovo computers. Whether that is part of a specific ban or simply a matter of course is unknown.

Further, regardless of the Australian’s statement, nothing to that effect has been said in response to the same allegations in the U.S., UK, New Zealand, and Canada.

However, we want to tread lightly with this report and keep a critical eye in these matters.

Even assuming that we’re engaged in a cloak-and-dagger like cyber war with China, is it really fair to ascribe enemy status to any company based in China? It seems small-minded. Granted, if there is a real suspicion of Lenovo installing backdoors or having Huawei too close to sensitive data, or what have you, then preventative measures such as keeping Lenovo computers away from secret government agency networks are par for the course.

But lest we cast China’s presence in the technology market as some great spying evil, let’s not forget that stateside tech companies have the same capabilities. How many computers in China are full of U.S. parts? Is it reasonable for China to avoid Intel chips because they believe Intel equals the U.S., which equals the NSA?

Or perhaps there is an international cyber war going on--which would surprise no one--and China is using tech companies based in that country to spy on U.S. agencies; the U.S. would most certainly be doing the same thing.

In all of this, all of my instincts tell me that there’s more to this story. At best, we’re getting a partial picture of what’s going on, and at worst it’s a crossfire of misinformation. Likely, there is some truth to everything that is being said, although the information is only so helpful because it’s unclear what has motivated any bans and from where the order(s) came from.

I believe that it’s unwise to paint every China-based company as a potential enemy. Although it is possible that the Chinese government has colluded with all of its major tech companies to spy on much of the rest of the world, such an allegation is currently hearsay.That’s not to say that governments don’t have good reason to be wary of Chinese companies, but the facts pertaining to any bans are incomplete, and the picture is muddled.

It wouldn’t be completely surprising if these countries’ secret agencies have banned Lenovo products, but even so, jumping from preventive, precautionary security measures to concluding that the likes of Lenovo are engaging in international espionage is premature.