Hysteria over State buy of Lenovo PCs a 'drive-by smearing'

How exactly will the Communists get their powerful spy chips installed in Lenovo PCs? Will agents impersonate North Carolina assembly workers? Will GSA security pros turn a blind eye? Could this 'scandal' be mere xenophobia?
Written by ZDNet UK on

A few weeks back we wrote about a Beltway Brouhaha over the State Dept.'s purchase of 15,000 Lenovo PCs. The problem critics had was that Lenovo is Chinese and they imagined that all kinds of digital moles would be installed in top-secret US locations in DC and around the globe. We wrote:

Is the US on the verge of isolationist paranoia? A Dubai company running US ports may be one thing, but the squashing of the Sourcefire deal over open source software the company created but does not control makes a good deal less sense. Killing a deal to buy PCs because they're made by a Chinese company makes hardly any.

In today's NY Times, Randall Stross calls the attack on the purchase what it is: "a drive-by smearing." Top smearers: CNN's Lou Dobbs and Michael Wessel, a US-China Economic and Security Review commissioner. Dobbs excoriated State for turning to "Communist China" for IT needs and making the US "perhaps more vulnerable than ever."

Mr. Wessel said that the State Department would use the Lenovo computers in offices around the world, potentially providing China access to "some of our deepest secrets," a "treasure trove of information they could use against us." Mr. Wessel's segment was too brief to explain how China's agents would be able to grab hold of the machines to install the software for clandestine data transmission back to the party's Central Committee. The Lenovo desktops headed for the State Department will be assembled in facilities in North Carolina, not a People's Liberation Army compound in China. Also unexplained was how infected machines would meet General Services Administration security standards and get past the State Department's two computer security groups, which oversee the administration of their own test suites and install firewalls and other security software.

Could anti-Sino hysterical bigotry be at work? You think? Here are some things Stross uncovered.

  • When I asked [Wessel] he thought the State Department's security procedures were inadequate, he suggested that he could not say because the State Department had been less than forthcoming with him. "We don't fully know" what the procedures are, he said. But when I asked him if he had requested information from the department about its protocols before he publicly voiced his concerns about the Lenovo deal, he said he had not.
  • Wessel said he was certain that "a major portion" of Lenovo was "controlled by the Chinese government." State enterprises are placed in the hands of "princelings," who are the children of government leaders . . . When I asked Mr. Wessel to identify a Lenovo princeling, he said, "I haven't done a research of Lenovo." He said he had merely "raised questions" and had "never purported to have answers."
  • James C. Mulvenon, deputy director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, which is based in Washington and run by Defense Group Inc. ... said he had many concerns about China's state-sponsored espionage activities, but Lenovo was not on his list. He described the controversy about Lenovo as "xenophobia and anti-China fervor dressed up as a technology concern."
  • With an executive staff split between Chinese and Americans, Lenovo is the most global company in the PC industry, Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group said. The real story, he said, was that these critics were "really torqued that China is out-executing the U.S."

But all of this brain-dead backlash has very real consequences for Lenovo, for taxpayers and for IT purchasing in the federal goverment.

"The next time," [consulatnt Roger L.] Kay predicted, "the government bureaucrat will say: 'Do I want to go through this? No, I'll go with the company that is perceived as American.' "

The smears will linger, he fears. "Facts don't matter," he said. "Perception matters."


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