China's TCL launches high-end BlackBerry smartphone in U.S.

(Reuters) – Chinese electronics maker TCL Corp on Thursday launched a high-end smartphone in the United States that it developed with Canada’s BlackBerry Ltd, touting security and privacy features to distinguish it from other devices.

The new BlackBerry Key2 smartphone is displayed at a product launch event for the device in Manhattan in New York, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

TCL unveiled the BlackBerry KEY2, which runs on Alphabet Inc’s widely used Android operating system, amid tensions between Washington and Beijing over the sale of Chinese telecommunications equipment in the United States.

The U.S. government and lawmakers have sought to limit sales of phones by larger Chinese phonemakers ZTE Corp and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, citing national security concerns. ZTE ceased major operations in April after Washington banned U.S. companies from selling it parts, though U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Thursday the government had reached a deal to reverse that ban.

The new BlackBerry Key2 smartphone is displayed at a product launch event for the device in Manhattan in New York, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The KEY2 is the third smartphone that TCL has launched through a partnership with BlackBerry, which decided in 2016 to stop making smartphones and license its software to other manufacturers.

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BlackBerry digitally audits phones built through the partnership to make sure no unapproved software is installed on them, and also signs off on all software updates to the phones, which are remotely installed by wireless carriers, the company said.

The KEY2, which retails for $649, features a BlackBerry app called DTEK that helps users see and manage how data is used by other apps. A second application, Locker, creates private folders for documents that enable users to prevent them from being uploaded to the cloud.

Such features help make KEY2 “the most secure Android product in the market today,” Alain Lejeune, president of TCL’s BlackBerry Mobile unit, told Reuters ahead of Thursday’s product launch in New York.

Such assurances may not protect TCL from scrutiny by U.S. lawmakers, given growing concerns about the activities of Chinese firms operating in the United States, said Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“They’re going to meet more scrutiny than they would have even a year ago,” Sacks said.

TCL also sells low-end phones in the United States under the brand of France’s Alcatel, which are mainly used with pre-paid carriers. Unlike the BlackBerry deal, TCL controls the software on Alcatel devices, TCL said.

Reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Jim Finkle and Frances Kerry

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