U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is warning Hungary the presence of Chinese telecommunication manufacturer Huawei in the European country is complicating Budapest’s partnership with Washington. 

The chief American diplomat Monday arrived in Budapest on Monday, the first leg of his European trip. Huawei has established Hungary as a European hub, where it can develop its fifth-generation mobile networks.

“If that equipment is co-located in places where we have important American systems, it makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them. We want to make sure we identify [to] them the opportunities and the risks associated with using that equipment,” said Pompeo.

While noting sovereign nations such as Hungary will “make their own decisions,” Pompeo said it’s imperative the United States shares potential risks from Huawei with its NATO allies.

American officials are increasingly troubled by Huawei’s expansion in Europe, especially in NATO member states where Washington believes the Chinese telecom manufacturer poses significant information security threats.

At a joint press conference with Hungarian Foreign minister Peter Szijjarto, Pompeo said he has raised with Szijjarto “the dangers of allowing China to gain a bridgehead in Hungary.”

But the U.S. pressure campaign against Huawei faces challenges. Hungary has said it has no plans to reconsider the decision to award the 5G networks contract to Huawei. 

Many in China believe that the U.S. government concerns over Huawei’s security are at least in part aimed at helping American companies better compete against foreign rivals. But U.S. officials reject that notion.

“That sounds like a lot of mirror imaging to me,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford in an interview with VOA, noting “the Chinese government has actually been extraordinarily grand in its ambitions to do just that sort of thing with Chinese companies.”

Ford pointed to numerous public reports in recent years that have blamed Chinese government-backed hackers with cyber campaigns stealing corporate secrets and financial data. 

“Cyber-facilitated theft of intellectual property, for example, has become notorious around the world. But the Chinese government has been doing that very systematically in order to advantage its own national champion industries in particular sectors,” Ford added.

Social media threats?

Weary of data collection and Chinese technology transfer for military purposes, the U.S. government is considering tighter restrictions on the use of social media apps that have geolocation features within diplomatic and military facilities.

While the State Department does not expressly prohibit the use of commercial geolocation applications on smartphones and other personal electronic devices by employees serving internationally, measures are taken to address the potential security risks.

The State Department has issued guidance requiring each post to develop a policy regarding the restrictions placed on using personal electronic devices.

“We obviously need to continue to be mindful of that, and to update and improve our understanding of best practices,” said Assistant Secretary of State Ford.

Last year, the Pentagon started prohibiting personnel from using geolocation features on electronic devices while in locations designated as operational areas.

Those restrictions could impact popular social media applications like TikTok, a Chinese-made app for sharing short videos that is popular among young adults.

All social media companies gather data on their users, but experts warn that Chinese companies in particular pose unique challenges because the Beijing government has absolute authority to request private user data. 

“The user in Western countries might not be aware that in China, the government has a far broader reach compared to over here, so they can request data out from a private company on national security grounds,” Claudia Biancotti, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), told VOA in a recent interview.

Biancotti added in China, “they don’t really have independent courts to oversee the process.”

“If this information is sent to China, it can be easily accessed by the government and leveraged, say, to make Beijing’s surveillance software better at recognizing Western faces, or at extracting intelligence on Western military activities,” warned Biancotti in a recent report.

TikTok, launched as Douyin in China in 2016, is owned by Chinese internet technology company ByteDance who later acquired Musical.ly, a popular lip-sync app among American teenagers. ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok in 2018 as a means of entering the U.S. market. 

Last October, TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in monthly installations. 

TikTok recently updated its privacy policy for U.S. residents, removing all references about storing data in China. 

Last August, TikTok stated in the privacy policy: “We will also share your information with any member or affiliate of our group, in China,” but the latest update in January of 2019 deleted the word “China.”

The company wrote an email to VOA’s Mandarin service that they regularly update their privacy policies while noting that TikTok does not operate in China.

TikTok’s current privacy policy stated it automatically collects technically and behavioral information from users, including IP address, location-related data or other unique device identifiers. 

“We may also collect Global Positioning System (GPS) data and mobile device location information.” But users can switch off location information functionality on their mobile device if they do not wish to share such data.

“We will share your information with law enforcement agencies, public authorities or other organizations if legally required to do so,” TikTok stated. 

VOA’s Mandarin Service, Jeff Seldin and Mo Yu contributed to this report.

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