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Top intelligence official says Chinese ZTE cellphones pose security risk to U.S.

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top counterintelligence official told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that penetration of the U.S. market by the Chinese telecom firm ZTE could pose a national security risk to the United States.

His comments come two days after President Donald Trump tweeted that he was working with the president of China to help ZTE, which has been sanctioned by the Treasury and Commerce departments for doing business with Iran and North Korea.

Bill Evanina, who is facing a confirmation vote to head the newly created National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said he was not up to speed on the sanctions against ZTE, and he declined to say whether lifting them would be a good idea.

But under questioning by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Evanina said U.S. intelligence agencies are on record as assessing that Chinese telecommunication firms are used as a vehicle by the Chinese government to conduct espionage.

Image: William Evanina
William Evanina, nominated to head the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, at a cybersecurity summit in 2017.Joshua Roberts / Reuters file

And, answering a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., he said he would never use a ZTE phone.

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Too many jobs in China lost.”

As NBC News reported Monday, ZTE ran afoul of the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments when it sold hardware incorporating American technology to Iran and North Korea in violation of U.S. sanctions against those countries. In March, ZTE agreed to pay $1.2 billion, but when Commerce Department officials discovered a month later that ZTE had rewarded rather than punished the company officials responsible for the violations, it implemented a “denial order” prohibiting U.S. companies from selling their goods to ZTE for seven years.

The denial order effectively crippled the company, which said last week it was shutting down most of its operations.

Lawmakers from both parties have pushed back on Trump’s suggestion of relief for the company.

“Our intelligence agencies have warned that ZTE technology and phones pose a major cyber security threat,” tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “You should care more about our national security than Chinese jobs.”

“Problem with ZTE isn’t jobs & trade, it’s national security & espionage,” Rubio tweeted on Monday. “We are crazy to allow them to operate in U.S. without tighter restrictions.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement: “One of the few areas where the president and I agreed, and I was vocally supportive, was his approach towards China. But even here he is backing off, and his policy is now designed to achieve one goal: make China great again.”

Image: FILE PHOTO: People stand at ZTE's booth during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
ZTE’s booth during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2017.Paul Hanna / Reuters file

In a statement on its website about the seven-year ban, ZTE said it was “unacceptable” that the U.S. government “insists on unfairly imposing the most severe penalty on ZTE even before the completion of investigation of facts.”

The ZTE controversy comes as critics are pointing to the Trump Organization’s involvement in an Indonesian theme park backed by the Chinese government, arguing that Trump faces a conflict of interest in negotiating with China.

Earlier this month, as NBC News reported, the Pentagon ordered stores at U.S. military bases to stop selling ZTE and another Chinese brand of cellphones and modems, saying the devices may pose a security risk.

Huawei and ZTE products are being removed from the three store chains operated by the Defense Department at installations worldwide, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Dave Eastburn said.

“Huawei and ZTE devices may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission,” said Eastburn. “Given the security concerns associated with these devices, as expressed by senior U.S. intelligence officials, it was not prudent for the department’s exchange services to continue selling these products to our personnel.”



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Iran targeting U.S. state voter rolls and spreading election propaganda, officials say

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The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency both issued advisories Friday warning that Iran is spreading propaganda and targeting U.S. state websites, including election sites, in “an intentional effort to influence and interfere with the 2020 U.S. presidential election.”

The FBI sent a FLASH bulletin to various states, saying an Iranian group is “creating fictitious media sites and spoofing legitimate media sites to spread anti-American propaganda and misinformation about voter suppression.” It added, “This group has been linked to efforts to disseminate a propaganda video concerning voter fraud and hacking of U.S. voter information. The FBI advises this video is almost certainly intended to make U.S. voter information and the voting process appear insecure and susceptible to fraud.”

The CISA advisory went further, stating that the Iranian hackers have also “successfully obtained voter registration data in at least one state.” The agency did not disclose which state.

Both the FBI and CISA confirmed that “a review of the records that were copied and obtained reveals the information was used in the propaganda video.”

There is no indication that any voter registration databases have been manipulated or any votes have been changed.

The news comes after FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe alleged in a press conference last week that Iran and Russia had hacked local governments and obtained voter registration and other personal data. Iran used the data, the officials claimed, for a recent campaign of emails that purported to be from the white nationalist group the Proud Boys, which were sent to intimidate Florida Democratic voters.

Both countries have denied the accusation.

U.S. intelligence officials also believe Iranian hackers probed election-related websites of 10 states and, in one case, accessed voter registration data, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News on Friday. The hackers scanned state and local websites at the end of September, then attempted to exploit the websites and steal voter data, the source said. The states were not named.

FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials briefed local election officials on the attempt during a conference call and assured them that the agencies will be coordinating with states to address the issue. DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

DHS officials have stressed that these hacks did not grant attackers access that could affect the integrity of the vote. But there have long been fears that foreign hackers could tamper with voter rolls in a way that makes it harder for people to vote when they show up on Election Day.

American voters’ data is, on the whole, already public and widely available. Though laws vary by state, some make the list available to anyone who requests and some just to political parties; some require requesters to be researchers or to work in politics; some charge a fee. Some lists are simply available to download from a state website at any time. But all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have at least some way to make access easy for requesters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.



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Fishing chief warns French will use 'militant tactics and burn boats' in Brexit blockade

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FRENCH fishermen are plotting to use “militant tactics” to stage a mass blockade of ports in a bid to hammer their Brexit message home, a fishing chief has warned.

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Biden faces protestors in Minnesota, says 'we need to come together'

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Former Vice President Joe Biden faced loud protesters during his drive-in campaign rally in Minnesota but said that he would still represent them if elected, adding “we need to come together.”

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