Low-tech arrests may be antidote to China’s high-tech crimes

“When they go high, we go low.” For many, this might seem like a political commentary, a variation of what Michelle Obama said.

It’s not. Instead, it might be the best way to counter China’s aggressive high-tech espionage and theft of our intellectual property. It’s also a creative way to use low-tech solutions that prevent technology ending up in the hands of state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran.

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou earlier this month was a watershed moment in how the United States addresses the continuing assault against our intellectual property and the criminal support for terrorist regimes by China. Wanzhou is the CFO for Huawei, a giant information and communications technology company in China. Huawei has been a constant target of the U.S. national security community.

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In May, the Pentagon announced a ban on the sale of Huawei and ZTE mobile phones on U.S. military bases. It only took 10 short years for the Pentagon to come to the conclusion that Chinese telecommunications companies posed a threat to our national security.

Three months earlier, in February, intelligence leaders told Congress that they would advise against Americans purchasing products from the two firms, warning that their devices could be used to conduct espionage on behalf of Beijing.

In 2008, the Treasury Department, through its Committee on Foreign Investment, blocked the sale of 3com, an American company that makes anti-hacking computer software for the military, to Huawei on national security grounds. In 2010, Sprint said security was the official reason it would not consider bids from Huawei and ZTE for the $7 billion upgrade of its network.

In 2011, the U.S. Commerce Department announced Huawei "will not be taking part in the building of America's interoperable wireless emergency network for first responders due to U.S. government national security concerns."

Even the Czech Republic has labeled Huawei a threat, issuing " has urged against using software and hardware from Huawei and ZTE because they present a security threat.”

Iran was officially designated as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, before the internet had gone mainstream and before Iran had a nuclear program. Time has changed everything. The list of sanctions against Iran is long.

The sanctions are clearly designed to prevent money, technology and assistance from reaching a regime that has been building nuclear weapons and engaging in offensive cyber operations. That’s in addition to the acts of terrorism it has recently sponsored in Iraq and Syria. This was aided by the “worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history” according to the late Charles Krauthammer

Krauthammer noted that “we’re going to be releasing up to $150 billion as an upfront signing bonus. That’s 25 times the annual budget of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Enough to fuel a generation of intensified Iranian aggression from Yemen to Lebanon to Bahrain.”

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou is a significant shot across the bow and, used properly, could deter future criminal activity from Huawei, as well as tamp down cyber espionage by China. Here’s why:

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First, China is having a difficult time making any kind of "human rights" case for the arrest of Wanzhou. The Chinese embassy in Canada issued a statement, loaded with irony; it said that China "firmly opposes and strongly protests" Meng's detention and called the arrest a "wrongdoing" that "harmed the human rights of the victim." This from the same country that has created concentration camps holding as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs, as well as the relentless persecution of Christians.

Second, when enough countries band together, China’s economic power can be effectively neutered by preventing its entry into certain markets or promoting its expulsion from other ones. Huawei learned that back in 2003, when it stole source code from Cisco in a blatant, wholesale manner.

Cisco doesn’t normally like high-profile litigation. But it made an exception for Huawei. The result was that “within a few months of filing suit, Cisco obtained a worldwide injunction against sale by Huawei of products including our code for a Cisco-proprietary routing protocol called EIGRP, and Huawei publicly admitted that the code had been used in their products and they pledged to stop.”

Third, the prospect of 30 years per charge if Wanzhou is extradited to the United States puts a serious crimp in a global company and the ability for its senior executives to leave China again, for fear of arrest. 

While China competes aggressively and unfairly to dominate all things high-tech, like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, it may be the lowest kind of technology that can finally slow, or even stop, its thirst for power: Like a signature on an arrest warrant.

So, in this instance at least, when China goes high-tech, we go low-tech. The pen truly can be mightier than the sword.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.