All Your Data Are Belong to Us

What do the forced brainwashing of Uighurs, mandatory government registration to own a phone or an online account, extradition of a former corporate chief financial officer to the United States and retaliatory imprisonment of two Canadians, a recent surprise for Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the Internet of Things have to do with one another?

They all center around Huawei, the telecom equipment company through which Chinese leaders want to have access to information—and more—around the world.

Huawei reportedly provided equipment used to monitor Uighurs around the clock. More than 1 million Uighurs are now involuntarily rounded up and subject to forced “re-education” by Chinese authorities.

Chinese authorities have announced a new measure requiring all new phone purchasers and online accounts to register with the government. Huawei is the leading provider of smartphones to the Chinese market, and heavily promotes their 3D facial recognition capabilities for logging into every app that users access.

And Huawei is pushing hard to be the provider of 5G high-speed bandwidth communications around the world. That’s the same Huawei known to leave backdoor access hidden in their equipment.

So why does this matter to you and me?

The Internet of Things, AI, and the Surveillance State

Perhaps you’ve heard about the Internet of Things (IOT). It’s the increasingly large, complex, and interconnected collection of sensors and smart devices that share data with each other and with central systems.

Those systems in turn feed machine learning software that tracks the status of devices, issues control commands that affect their behavior, and identifies deep patterns about how the devices work. The IOT is transforming many manufacturing plants as a result, improving efficiency and workplace safety.

But the same kind of systems can track you, too: how you as a user behave, what you do, where you go, with whom you communicate, and more. That’s because the devices that are potentially part of the Internet of Things aren’t limited to factory equipment. They include everything that can and does communicate using WiFi, Bluetooth, and more so long as somewhere along the line a device passes along that data. Your phone. Your FitBit. Your car with the handy voice command ability.  Your smart door camera. The hidden surveillance cameras on busy street corners that feed images of the faces of passers-by to a facial recognition system and license plate images to police databases.

Use Alexa or Siri or a smart TV? You are training an AI to understand you even when you didn’t intend to give a command.

As consumers, businesses, and government surveillance systems increasingly make use of these connected systems, existing communications networks are becoming swamped. And that’s where 5G comes in.

To make the Internet of Things and the promised benefits of mining your fitness data for improved health care and lower insurance rates (to cite one application) a wide reality, every country in the world will need to move to the higher capacity 5G standard. That means installing new communications equipment.

But while American universities are on a spittle-flecked gender pronoun crusade and our administrative elites persist in the fantasy that we can and should benignly rule the world through the transnational institutions that coincidently have reinforced their prestige, power, and economic well being, China fully intends to make the long march to effective world dominance.  The Belt and Road initiative is a global strategy for dominating trade relations and more via infrastructure development and investments. It spans 152 countries, aided by international organizations in every region of the world.

What infrastructure will play a key role in influencing and controlling populations? You got it—5G based communications, captures of massive amounts of personal information, and AI/machine learning that mines that data for increasingly rapid, automated understanding of what you do and where you go and with whom you do it.

Like the idea of an omnipresent, omnipotent government watching and controlling your every move? Telling you what you may think and do and say, with whom you may associate, and more? If so, you’ll love the surveillance state that is looming if we don’t push back.

How China Got To This Point

Today China presents a serious challenge to the United States and the West across many fronts: militarily, economically, and through influence operations. Underlying all of those is a rapid process of catching up to and, in some cases, surpassing science and technology originally developed in the West, and often here in the United States.

That didn’t happen by accident. It started, arguably, with the “one child policy” under which Chinese were limited to a single child with forced abortions of any additional pregnancies. Given the longstanding preference of Chinese culture for sons over daughters, this led to a major demographic gender imbalance. Today, tens of millions of young Chinese men cannot find spouses. Their energies have been channeled into the military and related science and technology efforts.

Western administrative elites opened the doors, giving China trade advantages in agreements. China promptly cheated massively for additional gain. Western universities opened their doors to Chinese students on the naïve assumption that the result would be benign common appreciation for each others’ cultures. China promptly organized and enforced massive exfiltration of Western technologies ranging from proprietary company secrets to tax-payer funded research and development from our national laboratories—labs that conduct highly sensitive, national security R&D.

That is the opportunity cost we are paying for our transnational elite’s fantasies. For the decay of the regime that immediately after World War II rebuilt Europe and then won the Cold War, into a cozy little clique that meets at Davos and is blind to the longer term impacts of their favored policies.

Building on that extensive base, and with a strong cultural focus and government push, China rapidly is getting to the point of surpassing us in highly critical cutting edge capabilities like quantum computing. And they are making a full press push to own infrastructure that is a key capability for commercial, military, and state dominance.

That’s why Huawei matters so much. It’s far more than the (real) economic impact of selling and administering telecom equipment. It goes to owning the data that gives AI and machine learning advantages across every dimension of personal, corporate, and military activity.

What Next?

The situation is far worse than many Americans realize. But there is time to push back if we act quickly and decisively.  The Trump administration’s insistence on fair, transparent trade agreements is a good start. So too is the requested extradition of Huawei’s former Chief Finance Officer Meng Wanzhou, to the United States from Canada to face charges of intellectual property theft from T-Mobile, wire fraud, money laundering, and covert violation of sanctions on Iran.

But unless there is a substantial international rejection of Huawei as the 5G provider of many countries, the United States will find itself suffering from our own lack of urgency in developing this and other tech.  The outcome is still to be determined. But it’s a good sign that German officials have strongly pushed back on a China-Germany agreement that would have installed Huawei equipment there.

Longer term, we urgently need a renewed focus on American science and tech development—real science, not politically correct posturing or faked research results for academic promotion, and tech focused on issues like privacy and accountability for AIs. A little care in who is allowed to use the resulting advances would be rather prudent, as well.

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About Robin Burk

Robin Burk started her career wearing bell bottom jeans in the basement of the Pentagon, where she had the challenging privilege of interacting with computing legend Grace Hopper, and in Silicon Valley, where she wrote one of the first commercially deployed Internet protocol software stacks. The remainder of her first career half was spent in roles through senior executive in small and mid-sized tech companies serving defense and national security customers in the US and abroad. After the attacks of 9/11 Robin taught in two departments at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). Returning to the Beltway area, she grew a fledgling research grant program in the new discipline of complex network systems at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, center of U.S. counterWMD expertise, then led a team that addressed national security and commercial applications at a major R&D organization. Today her passion is helping organizations and individuals make the best responses to disruptive tech-driven change. Along the way she picked up a PhD in artificial intelligence and some DOD civilian medals. She is currently being trained by a young English Cocker Spaniel whose canine appreciation for social compacts rivals that of Confucius and his followers.

Photo: MirageC/Getty Images

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