By CNN's Jill Dougherty and Pam Benson
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee fears the phones we use and other telecommunication systems we depend upon could be a Trojan horse, giving the Chinese government access to the United States' critical infrastructure so it can carry out economic and military espionage.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, announced this week that the committee has launched an investigation into the threat posed by Chinese telecommunication firms operating in the United States. The primary focus of the probe is Huawei, a company Rogers referred to as "the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
Huawei is a $28 billion Chinese company employing 120,000 people worldwide with approximately 1,500 in the United States. It is one of the top three providers of telecommunications equipment and information communications technology in the world.
Rogers is suspicious of what he calls China's "voracious appetite" for stealing commercial intellectual property.
"When you see a company like this - their leadership has former ties to Chinese intelligence services - it leads one to wonder what is in all of the code in these particular networks," he said. "Would it enhance their ability to steal information? Yes. Would it enhance their ability to conduct attacks on networks? Absolutely."
Bill Plummer, Huawei's vice president of external relations, said the founder of the company was an engineer in the Chinese army, but left more than 25 years ago, and his private firm has no ties to Chinese intelligence.
"Huawei as a global leader in the industry currently serves over 500 operators in over 140 countries, including 45 of the world's top 50 telecommunications service providers, and hasn't experienced a single security incident," he said.
There is also an economic dimension to any decision to go after foreign companies in the United States who are employing thousands of Americans during a time of global financial crisis.
Huawei's Plummer said the company creates jobs in the United States - 1,500 direct jobs and 500 new ones this year alone. Added to purchases from U.S. high tech firms, that means tens of thousands of additional indirect jobs, he said.
But should security be ignored because Americans need jobs? Cyber expert Alan Paller from the Sans Institute acknowledged there is a major risk, but a necessary one.
"It's called a supply chain problem, where wherever we buy technology, here or abroad, somebody nefarious could put something into it. Big risk. But deciding not to do business with one company who might do that is cutting off your nose to spite your face because they create jobs. They create economic trade. They create opportunities."
However, Intelligence Committee Chairman Rogers doesn't buy that argument. "If in fact we find something that means there is a threat to the national security environment, I think there is a fine American company that can stand in to fill the void," he said. "Secondly, our national security should not be for sale."
Plummer said he potential vulnerability of telecommunications is a global and industrywide problem. He welcomed the congressional investigation, saying, "This is a legitimate concern and initiative to address what is an industrywide problem that has nothing to do with any one single company or any inputs from one single country."
And some cyber experts maintain it doesn't really matter if China or any other nation has a company with operations in the United States. Paller said there are hundreds of ways to get access to U.S. networks.
"It's not just China and it's not just Huawei. And it's so many people doing it ... it's whack-a-mole if you try to stop every one of these other countries," he Paller said. "What you need to do is better protection for your own systems and stop whining about the people who might possibly put something into those systems."