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Data and Surveillance in China and the United States

Aynne Kokas is a Kluge Fellow and an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Dr. Kokas testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2018, and was scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Chinese censorship of American industry on March 26. That testimony has been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

For this blog, I spoke with her about her research on relations between China and the United States in regard to data gathering technologies.

Andrew Breiner: Can you tell me a bit about your project looking at technology, data, and concerns over which countries control technologies?

Aynne Kokas: My project is called “Data Trafficking: Intimate Trade between China and the United States.” The book examines Chinese commercial data gathering in the United States through a wide range of entertainment and household technologies.

AB: What is the problem posed by the potential adoption of 5G infrastructure built by the Chinese company Huawei? What is the decision countries are faced with in regards to Huawei?

AK: The concern that countries have with adopting Huawei 5G infrastructure has several facets. Most significantly, governments are afraid that a Chinese firm that has strong military ties and a Chinese government that lays claim to the technologies developed by the private sector may put a back door into the installed technology to surveil network traffic.

The next concern relates to Huawei being able to develop economies of scale with this new technology and essentially dominate it globally, thus not providing other countries much recourse if there is a security-related issue with it.

Finally, 5G is a leading global technology. Huawei’s expansion is occurring in large part due to subsidies from the Chinese government. There is a clear economic competitiveness argument that it is necessary to fight against one country taking control of key new technology infrastructure as a result of government subsidies.

AB: What other technologies are affected by these concerns?

AK: There is a wide range of other technologies that are impacted by Chinese commercial data gathering in the United States.

Two companies that have come to recent prominence as national security risks are the social media platform TikTok and the LGBTQ+ dating and social platform Grindr. Both firms are owned by Chinese companies that have access to data generated by users on the platforms.

Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. Ltd. has been ordered by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to divest from Grindr by June 2020. However, it is hard to see how that would be enforced given the current coronavirus shutdown. Also, Beijing Kunlun Tech already has Grindr’s data generated through the period of its anticipated divestment. Divestment would only limit new data acquisitions.

AB: How is the facial recognition technology involved in all this?

AK: Facial recognition technology requires training data to become more sophisticated. Companies like Grindr and TikTok are gathering huge troves of faces as static images, people talking, singing, etc. Thus, by joining these two platforms, users are contributing to the sophistication of their facial recognition capabilities. This is also true of any US-based platforms where you share your images. Facebook and Instagram are two key culprits.

However, in the case of TikTok and Grindr, the firms also have the mandate to share data with the Chinese government because of a principle called civil-military fusion which entitles the Chinese government to any resources generated by private industry in China. The United States had the Snowden revelations about its government’s use of technology for surveillance, but civil-military fusion is on a larger scale and is a condition of doing business in China for Chinese companies.

AB: Are there examples of other countries distrusting technology that comes from US-based tech companies?

AK: Absolutely. The United States has by no means been innocent in the global landscape of data theft. In February 2020, the Washington Post reported on the company Crypto AG, a Swiss encryption firm that began as a code building asset for the United States during World War II. US intelligence agencies used the encryption firm to gather intelligence on countries using its encryption services from the 1970s to 2018.

AB: What’s the history of restrictions on companies due to these kinds of data and surveillance concerns?

AK: The United States has not had to significantly contend with foreign data and surveillance companies because of its leading position in the global technology industry.

Countries like China have censored US tech firms like Facebook and Google due to concerns about data gathering and surveillance in China. The emergence of a major global technology industry contender that has captured a significant market share in the United States is something for which I believe the United States is currently ill-prepared.

I am writing my book to raise awareness of the ways in which our market-based system allows state-subsidized companies to enter into the US market and extensively gather data to enhance both industrial and security capabilities.

AB: What is the major conflict in deciding whether to restrict these companies?

AK: The United States has long advocated for a free-market approach in developing communications infrastructure. The reason there is now a stimulus package in place to help rural American broadband providers tear up Huawei-installed broadband infrastructure is that they offered the best-priced option for these communities. Some would argue that they were only able to outbid other firms like Ericsson and Nokia because of Chinese government subsidies.

However, our economy doesn’t currently price in government subsidies from other countries in other commodities, such as the purchase of oil. Thus, there isn’t a clear precedent for prohibiting Huawei infrastructure on the principle of unfair subsidies.

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