Telstra phones that were on offer to Australia's parliamentarians and their staffers will be retired following media reports that the devices might be spying on its owners on behalf of the Chinese government.
In September, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) had undertaken an "urgent review" following inquiries by the newspaper about whether the Telstra Tough T55 handset might be a national security risk, as it was manufactured by Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.
ZTE has been one company under the microscope over its ties to the Chinese government, with a 2012 US House Intelligence report stating that US government systems should not include ZTE or Huawei equipment because the two companies "cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence".
Huawei is already banned from supplying technology for the National Broadband Network in Australia.
The Daily Telegraph reported that there were 90 Telstra Tough T55 devices sold to parliamentarians and their staff in the last financial year on voice-only plans (meaning no data included), and that the devices were up for sale for $195.
In response to a Senate Estimates question on notice from Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, the DPS said that following on from the media report, it had discussed the device with Australian security agencies, and had examined the US House Intelligence report.
Despite the concerns raised by the newspaper, the DPS said it could find no evidence the device was a security risk.
"The Telstra T55 ... manufactured by ZTE has been known to DPS for some time and no evidence has been put forward to indicate that any significant risk exists," the department stated.
"DPS reviewed the situation and concluded that the risk had not changed. The phone continues to be offered on the whole of government telecommunication panel for purchase by federal agencies; relevant agencies have indicated that there is no concrete evidence of an existing security threat."
DPS said that parliamentarians would, in fact, use the phone when travelling to countries "considered to be of a high cyber risk" where people are told to assume that all their communications will be compromised.
Despite the reassurances, the DPS said it would now try to find a different voice-only phone to replace the T55 "to remove any doubt" about security, and the handsets in circulation would be phased out as they reach their end of serviceable life.
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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