Threat Assessment: Chinese Technology Platforms

The American University Washington College of Law and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University created a working group to understand and assess the risks posed by Chinese technology companies in the United States. They propose a framework to better assess and evaluate these risks by focusing on the interconnectivity of threats posed by China to the US economy, national security and civil liberties.

tl;dr

The Trump administration took various steps to effectively ban TikTok, WeChat, and other Chinese-owned apps from operating in the United States, at least in their current forms. The primary justification for doing so was national security. Yet the presence of these apps and related internet platforms presents a range of risks not traditionally associated with national security, including data privacy, freedom of speech, and economic competitiveness, and potential responses raise multiple considerations. This report offers a framework for both assessing and responding to the challenges of Chinese-owned platforms operating in the United States.

Make sure to read the full report titled Chinese Technology Platforms Operating In The United States by Gary P. Corn, Jennifer Daskal, Jack Goldsmith, John C. Inglis, Paul Rosenzweig, Samm Sacks, Bruce Schneier, Alex Stamos, Vincent Stewart at https://www.hoover.org/research/chinese-technology-platforms-operating-united-states 

(Source: New America)

China has experienced consistent growth since opening its economy in the late 1970s. With its economy at about x14 today, this growth trajectory dwarfs the growth of the US economy, which increased at about x2 with the S&P 500 being its most rewarding driver at about x5 increase. Alongside economic power comes a thirst for global expansion far beyond the asian-pacific region. China’s foreign policy seeks to advance the Chinese one-party model of authoritarian capitalism that could pose a threat to human rights, democracy and the basic rule of law. US political leaders see these developments as a threat to their own US foreign policy of primacy but perhaps more important a threat to the western ideology deeply rooted in individual liberties. Needless to say that over the years every administration independent of political affiliation put the screws on China. A most recent example is the presidential executive order addressing the threat posed by social media video app TikTok. Given the authoritarian model of governance and the Chinese government’s sphere of control over Chinese companies their expansion into the US market raises concerns about access to critical data and data protection or cyber-enabled attacks on critical US infrastructure among a wide range of other threats to national security. For example:

Internet Governance: China is pursuing regulation to shift the internet from open to closed and decentralized to centralized control. The US government has failed to adequately engage international stakeholders in order to maintain an open internet but rather has authorized large data collection programs that emulate Chinese surveillance.

Privacy, Cybersecurity and National Security: The internet’s continued democratization encourages more social media and e-commerce platforms to integrate and connect features for users to enable multi-surface products. Mass data collection, weak product cybersecurity and the absence of broader data protection regulations can be exploited to collect data on domestic users, their behavior and their travel pattern abroad. It can be exploited to influence or control members of government agencies through targeted intelligence or espionage. Here the key consideration is aggregated data, which even in the absence of identifiable actors can be used to create viable intelligence. China has ramped up its offensive cyber operations beyond cyber-enabled trade or IP-theft and possesses the capabilities and cyber-weaponry to destabilize national security in the United States.

Necessity And Proportionality 

Considering mitigating the threat to national security by taking actions against Chinese owned- or controlled communications technology including tech products manufactured in China the working group suggests an individual case-based analysis. They attempt to address the challenge of accurately identifying the specific risk in an ever-changing digital environment with a framework of necessity and proportionality. Technology standards change at a breathtaking pace. Data processing reaches new levels of intimacy due to the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Thoroughly assessing, vetting and weighing a tolerance to specific risks are at the core of this framework in order to calibrate a chosen response to avoid potential collateral consequences.

The working group’s framework of necessity and proportionality reminded me of a classic lean six sigma structure with a strong focus on understanding the threat to national security. Naturally, as a first step they suggest accurately identifying the threat’s nature, credibility, imminence and the chances of the threat becoming a reality. I found this first step incredibly important because a failure to identify a threat will likely lead to false attribution and undermine every subsequent step. In the context of technology companies the obvious challenge is data collection, data integrity and detection systems to tell the difference. By that I imply a Chinese actor may deploy a cyber ruse in concert with the Chinese government to obfuscate their intentions. Following the principle of proportionality, step two is looking into the potential collateral consequence to the United States, its strategic partners and most importantly its citizens. Policymakers must be aware of the unintended path a policy decision may take once a powerful adversary like China starts its propaganda machine. Therefore this step requires policymakers to include thresholds for when a measure to mitigate a threat to national security outweighs the need to act. In particular inalienable rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly must be upheld at all times as they are fundamental American values. To quote the immortal Molly IvinsMany a time freedom has been rolled back – and always for the same sorry reason: fear.” The third and final step concerns mitigation measures. In other words: what are we going to do about it? The working group landed on two critical factors: data and compliance. The former might be restricted, redirected or recoded to adhere to national security standards. The latter might be audited to not only identify vulnerabilities but further instill built-in cybersecurity and foster an amicable working-relationship. 

The Biden administration is faced with a daunting challenge to review and develop appropriate cyber policies that will address the growing threat from Chinese technology companies in a coherent manner that is consistent with American values. Only a broad policy response that is tailored to specific threats and focused on stronger cybersecurity and stronger data protection will yield equitable results. International alliances alongside increased collaboration to develop better privacy and cybersecurity measures will lead to success. However, the US must focus on their own strengths first, leverage their massive private sector to identify the specific product capabilities and therefore threats and attack vectors, before taking short-sighted, irreversible actions.

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