China in Cyberspace
In the first part of this series, we explored China’s growth over the last few decades, and its increasing global influence. While the Belt and Road initiative is an important aspect of China’s bid to expand its presence on land and at sea, it is also seeking to develop in other ways. China has advanced technologies, which it has been eagerly exporting to countries around the world. These include quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI). The FBI, among others, has warned of the possibility that China may be planning to spy on the United States of America through technology. Others say there isn’t any evidence of this. Still, China’s advanced technology does lead to many questions.
Huawei is a Chinese telecom giant that was recently banned from the U.S. along with ZTE and a few other Chinese companies. Huawei has been in the news frequently over the last five years for a number of reasons including its special access to Facebook user data and ties with Google. Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer was arrested and held in Canada for three years on behalf of the U.S. for her involvement in alleged violations of sanctions on Iran. She was released in 2021. The U.S. government’s major concern with Huawei and other Chinese communications companies is security. FBI Director Chris Wray cautioned against using Huawei cell phones in 2018. While Huawei is, in some ways, a private company, its founder is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Huawei has also received a significant amount of state funding. Since the intelligence laws in China are vague, it’s possible that any data collected from phones or other equipment could be turned over to the Chinese government in a heartbeat. Huawei also exports cutting-edge 5G equipment. This is another security concern since back doors could be built into these systems, allowing the Chinese government to sabotage them at will. This could be a disastrous amount of control for a foreign government to have. Several other countries, including Australia, Great Britain and Canada have banned Huawei’s participation in the development of 5G technology in their countries. However, Huawei continues to sell its phones, laptops and other devices in all of them. Those who say Huawei is not a threat to national security point to the fact that it is a private company, and there is no hard evidence it is sharing information with the Chinese government.
Chinese VPN in the U.S.
In his conversation with Jennifer Richmond, international relations specialist and founder of Truth in Between, RSnake mentioned he had noticed several virtual private network (VPN) providers that were secretly owned by Chinese companies. He sees this as a significant security concern. “You can never hide information from your VPN provider,” he said. According to an article on VPN Pro, almost one-third of the world’s top mobile VPN providers are “owned by Chinese nationals or located in China.” While there isn’t any proof that Chinese companies or the government are accessing this data, as RSnake said, it would be easy for them to do so. When speaking with Richmond, RSnake shared details of a meeting he had with a highly connected individual in Taiwan. This individual told him, “We have it on good authority that the Chinese have approximately three pieces of sensitive information, like PII (personally identifiable information) on every single man, woman, and child inside of Taipei.” This shows the Chinese government has both the desire and the technology to collect massive amounts of data on the citizens of other countries.
The popular app TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance and has caused its own share of controversy. The FBI has warned that TikTok poses a security threat to Americans both due to data collection, and the possibility that software on devices could be compromised. TikTok has stated it will never hand over U.S. data to the Chinese government. Last June, the company announced all its U.S. traffic will be routed through U.S. servers. Recently, however, another issue with TikTok has been discussed. There is a Chinese version of TikTok with a different name, and vastly different content. Television program 60 Minutes investigated these variances, as did Fox News. The Fox News segment with Tucker Carlson found the Chinese version of TikTok showed wholesome content like college graduations, students giving presents to teachers, how to draw, and videos of military training. Carlson’s guest, former Air Force chief software officer Nicolas Chaillan, explained that in China, the app will not operate at night, and shuts off after 40 minutes. This version of TikTok is very different from the American one that does not have any mandated time limits and shows far different content. The Fox News segment showed videos from the American TikTok that featured content like sexy dancing, and hot dog catching competitions. Carlson postulated this was intentional, and called it a “psyop.” 60 Minutes had similar conclusions. Guest Tristan Harris said, “It’s almost like [Chinese company Bytedance] recognize[s] that technology’s influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.” According to 60 Minutes, TikTok stated it does give American users the ability to limit the app themselves. Others say it’s unfair to compare American and Chinese versions of TikTok since the Chinese government strictly controls social media there, and the U.S. government does not exert the same influence over free speech.
China, Quantum Computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI)
In his conversation with Richmond, RSnake pointed out that China is also in the lead on quantum computing research. Quantum computing has the potential to break any current cyber encryption used today. “They've invested very heavily in this and artificial intelligence,” he said. Regarding quantum computing he explained, “Things that rely on encryption to work, things like cryptocurrencies, things like you connecting to your bank… would suddenly be visible and decryptable by the Chinese government if they had access to this thing. It is a super weapon.” RSnake predicted quantum computers might have this capability in just a couple of years, and that no one would necessarily know if quantum computers had been used for decryption. If China were to develop this technology, it could gain unprecedented access to American military secrets and technology. Richmond said, “That's really frightening.”
AI in China
As of 2021, China had published the most research papers on AI in the world. The same year, it also led the world on the number of AI patents filed. While AI is making headlines with technologies like ChatGPT, it does have other, potentially dangerous uses. In his conversation with entrepreneur and AI expert Russ Bodnyk, RSnake explored the possibility of missiles and other weapons being operated by AI. Drones armed with missiles are increasingly automated, although still triggered by a human operator. With the increasing sophistication of AI, it’s possible humans could be taken out of the equation in the near future. Could China use its AI technologies for this purpose? According to ABC News, FBI Director Christopher Wray cautioned that China could use its AI capabilities for hacking, and to repress dissent in China and around the world. Chinese companies state China is planning to use its AI for other purposes. Head of Baidu (China’s Google) discussed the potential of AI in aerospace, finance, and energy sectors. And in 2022, the Chinese government submitted a position paper to the United Nations, calling for regulations to support the ethical use of AI globally, including limiting its military applications.
Any technology can be used for good or corrupt purposes, and there isn’t conclusive proof the Chinese government intends to use its vast technological capabilities for spying, hacking, or other unscrupulous reasons. However, in its treatment of dissidents and ethic groups like the Uyghurs, the Chinese government has also shown it is willing to harm its own citizens to achieve its goals. Is China a threat? Only time will tell. In the meantime, it makes sense to treat China, and its technology, with a sizable dose of caution. Want to learn more? Get more information on China, AI, and quantum computing any time!