Obama: “China, don’t you dare make us put backdoors in our software!” (That’s our job…)

Barack ObamaChina and the United States are at loggerheads over Beijing’s plan to force technology companies to share their encryption keys, and put backdoors into their software, if they wish to sell into China.

In an interview with Reuters, US President Barack Obama was critical of what he described as China’s “restrictive practices”:

“They would essentially force all foreign companies, including US companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services. As you might imagine tech companies are not going to be willing to do that.”

He’s right, of course, technology companies aren’t going to find that appealing. In fact, for some of them, I suspect it would be very damaging and possibly commercial suicide to be seen to be endangering users’ privacy in that way.

Sign up to our free newsletter.
Security news, advice, and tips.

Which makes me wonder whether Barack Obama feels the same about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan to introduce similar Big Brother backdoor legislation in the UK?

Fortunately, we know that Obama leans more towards privacy and strong encryption than some of his law enforcement advisors, but he shouldn’t just criticise the Chinese for this kind of move.

After all, I suspect there are many governments around the world who would like to scoop up and collect information on all their citizens using the internet, just in case they need to take a closer look at just one of them.

SIM cardsAnd isn’t it a bit rich to criticise China for proposing this, when his own NSA intelligence agency – working in cahoots with GCHQ – has recently been accused of hacking into Gemalto, the world’s largest SIM manufacturer, in order to snoop upon smartphone communications?

In the grand scheme of things, that seems like a much more aggressive and concerning incident than, say, a North Korean despot borking computers at a movie company because he didn’t like that they were making a comedy about his assassination.

The revelation of the Gemalto hack caused some toe-curlingly awkward (but you just can’t look away!) scenes in Australia recently, where a Senator quizzed officials representing intelligence agencies about the hack.

The irony didn’t get past China either, as Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying referred to the Gemalto hack in a press conference Q&A session.

Chinese news conference

Q: When taking an interview, US President Obama said that he was concerned about information security mentioned in China’s draft counter-terrorism law, and asked China to adjust relevant contents. What is China’s response?

A: As an important step to govern the country according to law, China formulates the anti-terrorism law in order to prevent and combat terrorism as is required by the Chinese government. Contents in this draft law echo the international situation of combating terrorism and meet the actual demands of domestic counter-terrorism campaign. They are proposed by learning from legislative experiences and practices of other countries. The legislation is China’s domestic affair, and we hope the US side can take a right, sober and objective view towards it.

On the information security issue, there is media revelation that certain country embedded spying software in the computer system of other country’s SIM card maker for surveillance activities. This is only one out of the recently disclosed cases. All countries are paying close attention to this and taking measures to safeguard their own information security, an act that is beyond any reproach.

Ho ho. “Certain country” indeed.

Don’t you love international diplomacy?

We all know who she means. She knows that we all know who she means.

Why not just say it?

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

29 comments on “Obama: “China, don’t you dare make us put backdoors in our software!” (That’s our job…)”

  1. Fat Mao

    China wants a back door to snoop on their citizens who might be labeled subversives and acting against the State. They are good at rounding up these people and making them disappear. The US does not care about what the average US citizen is doing. I really done care if they hack into my boring emails are listen to my drawl on the phone. There are very bad people in the US and that is who they are going after.

    1. Will · in reply to Fat Mao

      "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin Franklin

      1. David · in reply to Will

        I believe you always refuse the airport security check as your principle of not giving up essential liberty to purchase a tepmporary safety (only during the fight).

  2. okoy

    Then pull out in China and relocate elsewhere then lets see what happen to them..

    1. David · in reply to okoy

      Please pull out of China. I want to pull out of NSA too. Please tell me how.

    2. sam · in reply to okoy

      Then lets see what happen to you… hypocrite.
      What did U.S. did to Google, Yahoo… to comply with it?

    3. oldtimer · in reply to okoy

      Go ahead, make my day!

  3. joseph

    I can tell you why the Chinese do not say who the 'certain country' is that embedded spyware in SIM cards…it is called having 'couth'…it is noble for them not to say it. Apparently these are a people who have a sense of honor. Of course that is foreign to today's America…there is no honor among thieves…hence there may be a telling here about 'thieves'….

    1. cn · in reply to joseph

      One of the Oriental old sayings said "The one who yells loudly Thieves! Thieves! is the real thief!" !!!

      1. cn · in reply to cn

        Why Pre. Obama with a title of Nobel Peace Prize winner, was so upset, even China knew our intention, what could China do??? What Pre. Obama should worry about is the die-hard Republicans who want to EAT him ALIVE!!!

  4. asdfasd

    Cry baby. Crying is not going to make them change. Acceptance is the only course of action.

    1. Coyote · in reply to asdfasd

      Acceptance is the only course of action you say?

      The following would be the case if that was followed (this is some, not all):

      1. Slavery would be much worse than it is (yes it still is there).
      2. Many of those who escaped Nazi Germany (this includes kids by trains to UK, certain Nordic countries being neutral allowed many to escape to them, another Nordic nation allowing the occupation at the chance to save their own, list goes on here on this one) would be gone as would any future generations.
      3. The plague would have just survived, killing off humans.
      4. The rats/etc. that were in meat factories would be there still (consequently killing off many more humans). Yes, this was documented in a book (I want to say it was called 'The Jungle' but I can't recall for sure) and without that book and no tolerance to it, it wouldn't have changed.
      5. Hate would be far more prevalent (it is bad enough as it is).

      These points are quite basic and I can go on and on but I don't see why: blindly accepting whatever you're told is something that all oppressors hope for because they fear those who stand up to them most (and they use fear, intimidation and other manipulative tactics, themselves, to try to ensure this). But yet, those strong enough to stand up to them offer some hope to others. Blindly accepting things when it is wrong is weak.

  5. jan italia

    The sheer extent of hypocrisy of western leaders is mind-boggling.

  6. Nehemiyah

    So… the U.S. can make software companies put backdoors on their software so they can snoop and spy on everyone, but China isn't able to do the same thing?? I see that the bully doesn't like being bullied.

  7. Blue

    KETTLE BLACK – Here's the difference, one country is up front and says they want to do it, explains why, and passes appropriate legislation. Their population knows everything is being monitored. Another country, does all this in secrecy, the population does not know it is being monitored, and legislation is hidden behind a shroud of "national security" obfuscation. One country says mind your own business, another country tries to tell others what to do. One country is called China and the other is the U.S.A., you figure out which is which.

  8. olimo

    These Chinese people especially those in government doesn't respect any country's rights at all. Look at what they've done to the Philippines. They occupied OUR islands, and say HISTORICAL reasons. May you rot in hell, bastards!

  9. JD

    We should level the same conditions on Chinese companies and see how they would like it?

  10. TA

    Obama, Too late. The hard drives have been made in China, or taiwan(and other nations) since I can remember. Only because we chased businesses out of our country because the tax man was too greedy.

    1. Passby · in reply to TA

      The manufacturing will just never come back to America. If not made in China, it will be made in Vietname or Indonesia in future. The tax money will just not come back to America too. Look how much money Apple has compiled oversea and refused to turn them back into America.

    2. Coyote · in reply to TA

      Nowadays it is Taiwan, I seem to think (of course I could possibly be naming the wrong place but I think it is Taiwan… could check the box though). I say this because a few years back I, after a certain brand was bought out by another one (that I do not at all trust), went with another brand still. Normally I buy bare drives but it was an emergency purchase and so I had it at a store (i.e. retail box). (It might actually be that bare drives have this too but in recent times I've bought drives at stores because of detected disk errors) And what do I see but Taiwan .. when I didn't recall them being in Taiwan in the past. Discussion about this with a friend and it seems that they might all be in the same factory nowadays (which is scary). But yes, this is unfortunately how it is, and there are very few hard drive manufacturers left.

      I'm not sure it is taxes so much as other things, though (or if taxes is part of it I don't think it is all of it). Cheap labour is also it, and that is unfortunate but all too commonly (ab)used. Case in point: overseas support. That also has a worse effect: people are used to the accents, so much so that, those who don't know any better, are easier to fool by the scammers (who also have accents). It is one of the many reasons I play games with them, wasting their time and infuriating them in the process.

  11. trcrtps

    No, TA. The tax man might have been greedy, but that could not match the greed in the executive offices of the unpatriotic companies that moved. All that they could see were $$$, they did not care about the American worker or the economy. This first happened when ronald mcreagan was president, and he allowed this unpatriotic activity to continue because he did not care about America either. Obama and the NSA are also unpatriotic, destroying the Fourth Amendment and not even caring what the rest of us think.

    1. Coyote · in reply to trcrtps

      Maybe this isn't fair…but if the US thinks that way, they're finally catching up the rest of the world.

      Otherwise, consider this phenomenon:

      History is very long, and the more recent things are remembered and thought of (and thought about more intently). For instance, many Russians believe Stalin was and is a hero. How do I know this? It's been reported more than once, over the years. Furthermore, it is a known phenomenon and not only in Russia: leaders that are no longer in power are admired more, the longer time passes (maybe that is too general but the idea is that their approval rating/etc. goes up after they leave office). I think it makes sense though, even if odd: time allows for more thoughts, better understanding of the conditions of the past, context, etc. This is sort of like (at least if you read books) reading a book a second (or third, or…) time, where each time you read it you understand more than the previous time(s).

  12. Passby

    It's NSA who first snooped into other countries (even including allies like Germany) system by forcing our tech companies to employ back-door. Now China is employing a security law on their soil. What else can you say except crying wolf?

    1. Coyote · in reply to Passby

      It's just the NSA was most vocal (long history here and this includes the encryption (algorithm) exporting restrictions of old) and finally someone also let the cat out of the bag… one should assume that all countries that are capable of spying, do in fact spy (and indeed on allies). That's the safest way because it then makes you remember that no, just because you think it is a secret (and once recorded, or even after starting to record it like typing it but not saving it, it isn't a secret) doesn't mean it is (it isn't).

      But claiming it was the NSA first is ignoring history. The NSA is very very young compared to the age of espionage. It goes as far back as recorded history goes. Then you consider that the NSA was founded in the 50s, and it is absolutely impossible they were first. Consider the Cold War, too, between nations (okay they were enemies but that's not my point, and spying on any one and everyone isn't really new). The Stasi police also spied on locals. The Nazis did the same (to a scary amount). This is only modern history but espionage is ancient. As for backdoors, while this is more like a trojan, the idea is similar: where do you think the trojan horse concept (in computing) comes from? History books.

      Now if you want to say the NSA is just particularly bad about keeping secrets… that is another issue entirely, and is very valid.

  13. ted

    The US already has a back door. It's called the hex editor in visual studio which is almost allways allowed on all the business networks and the microsoft office programs that don't trip off intrustion detection when edited because they are saved and resaved every time they write to the drive. They probably just add a back door when needed. All in my opinion. Stop Microsoft’s bundling right there.

  14. nvtncs

    For all the US's flaws, there is a universe of difference between the government of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China, to those REAL AMERICANS, not Chinese trolls masquerading as Americans, who disagree or think that the PRC is more trustworthy, i suggest they renounce their US citizenship and apply for Chinese citizenship.

    1. Blue · in reply to nvtncs

      POWER CORRUPTS – I think this applies to any country, government, person. It's not about being "trustworthy," as people need to "trust, but verify." Currently in the U.S., a normal person has no way to verify anything the national security apparatus is doing. While this is the same in China, at least there the government has made it clear they're going to monitor everyone's messaging. It's much like an open-source approach, where there is no lock, the box is open — for all to verify.

      As to day-to-day life in China, currently everyone knows that anything they post can be monitored. So for the country to apply it to overseas-made components makes sense. For 99% of the population, no one cares that the government sees them posting, "look at my selfie!" Terrorists on the other hand, have a problem. For privacy, everyone goes to dinner and talks in a private dining room.

      Do you prefer a Wolf that says he's a wolf, or a Wolf disguised as a Shepard?

      I'm part of the current generation that lost their "trust" in government when Colin Powell held up the vile of "anthrax" and no WMD were found in Iraq. A U.S. government official (and business person) will lie thru their teeth as well or better than any China official. Do you disagree?

    2. Me · in reply to nvtncs

      China is a country, they do not abide by Obama law, it is Chinese land, Chinese laws, so suck it up or get the hell out.

  15. Jim

    To late Obama, the Chinese have planted bugs in everything we own, from microwaves, TV's, cars. He'll , 80% of the computers in an automobile were made in China. The damage is done. Wait till China activates their back doors.

What do you think? Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.