The Huawei threat: China considers data to be critical national infrastructure


Is Huawei a national security threat to the United States? Yes, but the answer is complicated and requires an understanding of the nature of national security in an internet-powered globalized world. 

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has focused on developing 5G to establish technological superiority in the 21st century and Huawei is at the heart of that strategy. To understand the PRC’s dominance in technology, we first must understand the coming convergence of artificial intelligence, big data, social media, e-commerce, fintech and robotics.

Technology has evolved quickly, from dial-up internet in the mid-1990s to the iPhone in 2007 to the convergence of mobile computing and 4G networks today. The Europeans led the way in 2G and 3G, the U.S. did with 4G, and the PRC is determined to do so with 5G

The combination of 4G networks and the smartphone enabled explosive economic growth around the apps, services and business models built upon the mobile computing platform. This combination also permitted collaboration in new ways — the modern protest — demonstrated recently on the streets of Hong Kong, and after the 2016 election in New York. 

In Hong Kong, the protestors are said to have used the iPhone’s AirDrop to prevent eavesdropping, a clever way of using peer-to-peer networks. Although some may see danger in the rising tide of anger, it seems clear that Hong Kong citizens are genuinely frightened of losing their freedoms as the PRC steadily moves away from its promised “one country, two systems.” The depth of despair from knowing that extradition awaits your every “wrong” move is stifling.

The 2016 post-election protest in New York is more troubling because it demonstrated a new way of warfare. A state actor used deliberate influence on social media. Using big data, AI bots and social media, the Russians were able to generate a 10,000-person march in the city. Until now, it has been the general wisdom that the internet and globalization asymmetrically benefitted democracies, and as technology evolved, totalitarianism would be under constant threat from an ever more open and transparent digital society. This social media manipulation, enabled through information technology, challenged democracy’s ability to respond.

So, what went wrong? It appears dictatorships have realized the power of technology to monitor and control human behavior and are working feverishly to harness it. At the same time, democratic governments have relinquished their responsibility to guide technological development in ways that mitigate risk and ensure that citizens benefit. Thus, totalitarianism is on the rise, and democracies are unable to maintain the protection of basic freedoms on the internet.

As large tech companies and totalitarian regimes perfect their ability to aggregate and harness data, they will become more adept at influencing social behavior. The PRC has harnessed the allure of its large market and financial incentives to get everything from artificial intelligence to intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is past time for democratic governments to provide oversight of a technological evolutionary path that has mankind destined for the Orwellian world of 1984. Huawei, a technology company under dictatorial control, has demonstrated a willingness to use infrastructure, handsets and personnel to pilfer whatever it needs. There is no question of the threat to democratic countries.

Just in case that is not enough to make you run the other way while chucking your smartphone into the waste bin, 5G is on the horizon. With 4G networks, the platform for the digital world was the smartphone. Thus, you could opt-out by choosing not to carry one. When the 5G world arrives, the ability to opt-out will go away. 

The 5G network — being built for machines, not humans — will allow connected devices to increase from 10,000 to 3 million per square mile. These new connections will not be people with smartphones, but machines. These machines will be able to track your comings and goings automatically with AI-powered identification. This will be the background to daily life, used to provide better medical, transportation and security services, but with no opt-out option.

Whoever owns the data is king, and the “social credit score,” the means to rule. It’s a fact of life in the PRC. The social credit score can be used to ensure that those who conform receive benefits, and those who do not are left out. Opportunities for better schools, jobs and health care, or even discounts, will be predicated on how good a citizen you are. Protesting or criminal records will ensure that you have fewer opportunities than peers, but so might smoking, religious choices, or dating someone considered “wrong.” And, your children will inherit your score.

The PRC cybersecurity law recognizes no geographic boundaries for its enforcement, or punishment. If you move data from your office in Beijing to your office in Los Angeles, you’ve just transferred sovereignty. Next time you transit through the PRC, or when you want to move money out of the country, you’d better believe enforcement is an option. Data in the PRC are considered critical national infrastructure and thus sovereign. 

Misuse of data in China, or merely criticizing regime policies, may result in detention if you live in China, and it could mean the stifling of opportunities outside of the mainland. Already in the 4G world, American companies are under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.  Everyday Americans are being intimidated, silenced and sidelined for comments on social media. When Huawei networks, phones and devices are predominant in the world’s telecom infrastructure, so too will be the CCP’s dominance over the world’s data. 

Is Huawei a national security threat? Judge for yourself. The people of Hong Kong and Taiwan can probably help you with the answer.

Robert Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, focusing on U.S.-China relations, economic and national security, and the Asia-Pacific military balance. Most recently, he served as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, and he has served in senior positions within the Defense and State departments for over 25 years. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept.” Follow him on Twitter @robert_spalding.

Tags 5G China Huawei Information and communications technology

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