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Western spooks banned Lenovo PCs after finding back doors

Report suggests 'Five Eyes' alliance won't work with Chinese PCs

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Chinese PC giant Lenovo has been banned from supplying kit for the top secret networks of western intelligence agencies after security concerns emerged when backdoor vulnerabilities were detected, according to a new report.

Unnamed intelligence and defence “sources” in the UK and Australia confirmed to the Australian Financial Review that a written ban was slapped on the firm almost a decade ago in the mid-2000s. The timeframe offered matches Lenovo's 2005 acquisition of IBM's PC business.

Serious backdoor vulnerabilities in hardware and firmware were apparently discovered during the tests which could allow attackers to remotely access devices without the knowledge of the owner.

The ban applies to various agencies in the Five Eyes alliance (UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) where such rules are normally implemented across the board given the interconnected nature of some of their classified networks, AFR said.

GCHQ, MI5, MI6, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and the NSA were all named as participating in the Lenovo ban. However, it only applies to the most highly restricted networks and the Chinese firm remains a significant government IT provider to other government agencies in these countries.

The revelations will be a concern for private businesses just as the US Congressional report on Huawei and ZTE last year which branded these Chinese firms a national security risk.

It’s unclear whether the results of the government testing of Lenovo kit were ever shared with the private sector, although Lenovo’s position as the leader of the global PC market would seem to suggest not.

While the company is a global publicly traded business with headquarters in North Carolina as well as Beijing, its biggest shareholder is Legend Holdings, a firm which itself is part-owned by government body the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

There is also widespread suspicion in the West that even non-state owned businesses have close ties with Beijing through the ubiquitous Communist Party committees which operate within them.

Lenovo has sent The Reg a statement in response to the report that does not deny its accuracy, but offers the following:

“We have not received word of any sort of a restriction of sales so we are not in a position to respond to this question. As a result of the purchase of the IBM PC division in 2005, we have an excellent track record in selling into the public sector globally. Our products have been found time and time again to be reliable and secure by our enterprise and public sector customers and we always welcome their engagement to ensure we are meeting their security needs. We manufacture our products around the world including facilities in the US, Europe, Japan, Mexico, India, Brazil, Argentina and China and R&D centres in Japan, US and China. We are a publicly listed, Fortune 500 company with significant leadership and operational resources in the US, as well as other markets around the world. We are very open, transparent and accountable to our public shareholders and a wide range of other stakeholders globally and have always met and exceeded government regulations in the 100+ countries in which we do business. We’re surprised by this development as Lenovo continues to have a strong relationship with all Australian government departments. Customer data privacy is a top priority for Lenovo across all customers groups. We are confident not only in our products, but also in the relationships we have with major customers in the public and private sectors around the world.”

The news comes a week after former NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden argued in an interview with the AFR that Huawei represents an “unambiguous national security threat to the US and Australia”. ®

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