Lenovo laptop deal draws scrutiny from government agency

Last year IBM sold its PC manufacturing division to the Chinese computer maker Lenovo in a nearly US$2 billion deal. Despite that, ThinkPads are still arguably the most-coveted x86 laptop with the geek crowd, and the ThinkPad love apparently extends all the way into the US government. A recent decision by the US State Department to buy 15,000 ThinkPads and desktop PCs from Lenovo is raising concerns within other parts of the US government.苏州美睫美甲

The US-China Economic Security Review Commission (USCC) wants an official probe into the purchase, fearing that the PCs and laptops could come complete with bugging devices enabling the laptops to phone home to their Chinese overlords. Larry Wortzel, chairman of the USCC, spells out the rationale behind the review:

"If you’re a foreign intelligence service and you know that a [US] federal agency is buying 15,000 computers from [a Chinese] company, wouldn’t you look into the possibility that you could do something about that?"

With the recent ruckus over the Dubai World Ports deal still fresh in the minds of politicians, it is almost inevitable that the State Department’s purchasing computers from a Chinese-owned company would raise eyebrows. What the USCC apparently does not realize is that many laptops sold in the US by US vendors (e.g., HP, Dell, and Apple) are assembled in China. So if the Chinese intelligence service wanted to implant bugging devices into PCs or laptops, they have had plenty of opportunities to do so already.

When the Lenovo-IBM deal went down, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States reviewed the deal for possible national security implications. Security issues were raised then, but primarily over corporate espionage and the transfer of US intellectual property to China. After its review, CFIUS found that those fears were largely unwarranted when it signed off on the deal last March.

Lenovo is critical of another probe, with Lenovo’s vice president for government relations Jeff Carlisle, saying the company has "nothing to hide." The company is also worried that future government deals would result in additional, unwarranted scrutiny.

History is rife with governments attempting to conduct espionage through novel means. Most notable perhaps, is the construction of a new US embassy in Moscow. Begun in 1979 during the days of the "evil empire" Soviet Union, the embassy was to be built by Soviet construction workers using Soviet-made construction materials. The KGB seized the opportunity, planting bugs inside the walls and tweaking the building’s steel skeleton so it could be used as a giant antenna. The US government finally caught on in 1985, and a costly reconstruction effort followed.

Is there a parallel here? It’s theoretically possible that a Lenovo motherboard could be modified to communicate surreptitiously with an outside intelligence agency. In reality, it would be very difficult to pull it off. Perhaps most importantly, doing so and getting caught would put a severe damper on Lenovo’s future ambitions in the US market.

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