Skip to navigationSkip to content

No wonder China is worried about Android—the NSA helped write its source code

REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Google’s Android figurine.
By Jake Maxwell Watts
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Google’s Android smartphone operating system uses source code contributed by the US National Security Agency. Especially in the post-Edward Snowden era, that’s a red flag for Beijing, and helps to explains why China has been so eager to encourage the growth of non-Android smartphones within its borders.

Security Enhancements for Android is one of several projects that the US spy agency contributes to open-source operating platforms. Ostensibly, the NSA’s addition to Android is designed “to raise the bar in the security of commodity mobile devices,” an NSA researcher told Bloomberg Businessweek. And indeed, anti-hacking protection is actually what the spy organization is supposed to be providing.

But you can bet that Beijing is dubious about the NSA’s stated aims, especially after news that the US agency hacked millions of Chinese SMS messages and is working closely with American technology firms. Even before Snowden’s leaks, China was directing stinging criticism towards Google and Android—used in at least three quarters of China’s mobile handsets—and accusing it of “commercial discrimination” against Chinese companies. Apart from security concerns, Beijing is also keen to promote its own fast-growing tech companies, some of which are chafing at Google’s dominance.

What can Beijing actually do about Android? The first hints were released in a government white paper in March that urged local Internet firms like Baidu, Huawei, Alibaba to develop their own operating systems or at least an independent variant of Android. But such offerings are probably years away.

In the meantime, NSA submissions to Android are freely available* for intense examination by anyone who wants to look. So until China’s mobile OS is ready, perhaps its Ministry of State Security should start making its own Android submissions—it’s only fair that the People’s Republic contribute to the open source software it is using so heavily.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Android was in the public domain; it is not.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.