Security experts warn MPs against using China’s Telstra Tough T55 handset

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A ZTE-built phone is being used by MPs, their staff and parliamentary departments. Picture: Reuters

AUSTRALIA’S national security could be compromised because of a Chinese phone being used by MPs, their staff and parliamentary employees.

News Corp Australia can reveal the Telstra Tough T55 handset — a phone made by Chinese telecommunications company ZTE, which has links to the Beijing government — is currently available on the secure ParlICT website for politicians and parliamentary employees to order.

And the Department of Parliamentary Services is now conducting an urgent review into the device’s suitability for use after questions from this newspaper (News Corp Australia).

The phone is listed for $195 on the ordering system available to all who work in Parliament House.

And in the 2016/17 financial year 90 of the devices were ordered and distributed by DPS on a “voice only” plan.

ZTE and its products, including the T55 handset, has long been a concern to overseas governments with the US House Intelligence Committee in 2012 finding that devices made by the company could not be trusted to be completely free of foreign state influence.

Telstra Tough T55 device available on the ParlICT system. Picture: Supplied.

Private security firm Kryptowire last year found some handsets made by ZTE could potentially contain a backdoor feature that would allow data to be sent to Beijing every 72 hours.

The revelation that the ZTE-built T55 handset is being used by government officials has raised serious concern among intelligence experts, who say there is no guarantee China wasn’t using the device to spy on Australia.

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Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings said given concerns have been raised about ZTE in the past, serious questions need to be asked about if the T55 device was appropriate to be used by government officials.

“It’s not a device I would be using,” he said.

“Certainly with a piece of Chinese technology it can’t be ruled out that there has been some backdoor implant that is allowing telephone conversations to be listened into even with a voice only plan.

“A lot of politicians don’t understand and have a relaxed view about the risk involved with Chinese technology and there is a responsibility for the Department of Parliamentary Services to not buy these devices to begin with.”

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said it was important not to jump to conclusions about the T55 device, but that equally the previous concerns raised about ZTE needed to be taken into account.

He said including devices made by Chinese telcos potentially “made it easier” for Beijing to spy on Australia.

“The fact is, parliamentarians and their staff should never assume that what they communicate is not of intelligence interest to a foreign power,” Professor Medcalf said.

“This is not just about classified national security information. Any information that could leave a person compromised or open to blackmail at any point in the future is of intelligence interest.”

Attorney-General George Brandis wouldn’t comment on the T55 phone. Picture: Gary Ramage

A spokesman for the Department of Parliamentary Services said devices chosen for the ParlICT ordering system were based on “technical and support requirements, our customers’ feedback and cost”.

“A large number of these devices are short term use phones that are provided for use in countries where travel advice recommends not taking smartphone devices,” the spokesman said.

“DPS is currently reviewing the ongoing suitability of (T55) devices within the fleet.”

Attorney-General George Brandis would not comment specifically on the T55 device but said national security reform was a key priority for the Turnbull government.

Telstra said it had looked into the T55 device but was yet to receive any specific complaints so would continue to make the device available to government clients.

“While we are aware of the concerns raised, we have not identified any issues specific to the T55 sold by Telstra,” a spokesman said.

ZTE did not return News Corp Australia’s request for comment.

By Lanai Scarr
News Corp Australia Network

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