China’s bid to control the internet

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Experts say China’s New IP ‘should frighten us all’. And then there’s the undersea cable wars…

I imagine trying to manage the impact of the coronavirus without the internet and a robust telecommunications sector. If we couldn’t communicate and transact in real time, economic activity would grind to a halt and social contact would be even more difficult. And there would be no COVIDSafe app, an important tool in the government’s recovery strategy.

Australia is already more wired than most nations, and the digital world is expanding rapidly as the coronavirus has forced business, schools, universities and government services online. Videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom are booming and the much maligned National Broadband Network finally is starting to realise its potential. But if these networks were to become untrustworthy or disrupted for any length of time it would be hard for the country to function effectively.

Fortunately, we are now much better informed and protected from many cyber threats. Passwords, antivirus software and cybersecurity are firmly entrenched in our personal lives and business culture. Governments and telecommunications companies have invested heavily in measures designed to protect overall system security. But these measures may not be enough if China is successful in setting the rules and designing the architecture of a new internet, because the one-party state’s internet vision reflects authoritarian values that are diametrically opposed to ours.

China has suggested a radical change to the way the internet functions to the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body established to standardise global telecommunications technologies, services and operations. The proposal envisages a different standard for core network technology called New IP (internet protocol) that it claims would make the internet more efficient and better structured for the digital age.

Experts agree that the internet should be upgraded to deal with a world in which machines, as well as humans, are connected. And most countries accept that today’s model of internet governance is broken and needs reform. But they don’t agree on how a new internet should function. This has given China an opening to argue for an alternative that would replace the open, unified worldwide web with a more fragmented patchwork of national internets that China calls “cyber sovereignty”.

Critics contend that New IP would bake authoritarianism into the architecture underpinning the web and give state-run internet service providers granular control over citizens’ use. An investigation by the Financial Times found that the new protocol would require the network to have tracking features and a “shut-up command” that could enable governments to arbitrarily deny users access, a departure from the present internet system, which acts as an agnostic postman that moves data around.

Acceptance of the proposal by the governing ITU at its November meeting in India would allow countries to choose the existing Western-designed internet or move to China’s version. Many developing states could choose the latter, which would help realise a long-term Chinese digital foreign policy goal: to entrench Chinese standards and technology as the foundation stones of the future internet, since the new global network would be designed and built by Chinese engineers led by controversial telecommunications giant Huawei.

“What differentiates us from China now is that in the West the public can still mobilise and have a say,” Harvard social scientist Shoshana Zuboff says. “What China wants is a technological infrastructure that gives them the absolute control which they have achieved politically, a design that matches the totalitarian impulse. So that is frightening to me and should be fright­ening to every single person.”

The US is highly unlikely to accept this outcome because internet power is mostly held by four large American corporations: Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. New IP would end this virtual oligopoly, accelerate China’s march to technology leadership and facilitate the export of its authoritarian model globally. If no consensus emerges, which seems probable, the world could split into separate information worlds, one led by the US and the other by China.

A Balkanised internet is not in Australia’s interest. A fractured digital world would vastly complicate e-commerce and trade, restrict the free flow of information, reduce international collaboration and human interaction, and leave us vulnerable to the exploitation of our relatively open system by authoritarian states secure behind their digital firewalls.

To prevent these outcomes, the government will need to engage with friends and allies to come up with a fit-for-purpose worldwide web that is more efficient, secure, user friendly and compatible with democracy. In the meantime, it needs to have a strategy in place to ensure that China’s proposal does not win at the ITU meeting in November.

New IP is only one of several China-associated tech security challenges the government will have to confront. Techno-economist Julian Snelder says the technology divide is becoming more evident in other areas of the global economy, too, with Beijing relentlessly focused on developing and promoting a “Chinese tech stack” comprising integrated layers of linked software and hardware that could allow it to capture entire market ecosystems in user countries.

International organisations are also targets for China’s rule-setting agenda. Last month the UN said it would partner with Chinese tech giant Tencent, which owns the popular app WeChat, to celebrate its 75th anniversary via videoconference and to discuss, among other topics, solving pandemics. However, all conversations would be visible to Tencent in unencrypted form and accessible to Beijing, which shows scant respect for privacy. Hong Kong academic Lokman Tui sees this as “the UN normalising and validating Chinese state surveillance” and says Tencent censored information about COVID-19 and contributed to its spread.

Beijing’s expanding web includes Zoom, which relies on software developed by Chinese companies legally obliged to provide their government with user data. The videoconferencing platform has been banned by our Department of Defence, NASA, Elon Musk’s Space­X and the New York public school system, highlighting security and human rights concerns about the expos­ure of sensitive data to Chinese Communist Party surveillance.

Trust in the internet could be eroded further by the cable wars, a developing battleground at sea.

Four hundred internet-enabling undersea cables carry about 98 per cent of the world’s digital traffic, including emails, texts and more than $US10 trillion ($15.5 trillion) of financial transactions. Cheaper and more efficient than satellites, these fibre-optic pipes are the communications backbone of the world economy and Western militaries. This makes them priority targets for intelligence collection by submarines and oceanographic vessels equipped with sophisticated hacking technology designed for deep sea-tracking and tapping top-secret communication cables.

Undersea cables have long been intelligence targets. During the Cold War, the US navy sent divers into the Sea of Okhotsk to install listening devices, hoping to garner vital clues about the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarines.

But the biggest concern today is that these cables could be deliberately severed or jammed with special equipment to interrupt vital communications and military links in times of conflict.

China and Russia pay close attention to where these cables run, to identify chokepoints and vulnerabilities. The Chinese navy has a modern oceanographic and submarine fleet able to access the dense network of undersea cables that crisscross the Pacific, linking Australia with Asia and the world.

Russia has been aggressively probing global networks with spy ships and converted nuclear submarines that deploy deep-sea submersibles such as the highly secretive Losharik, capable of cutting cables at depths where repairing them would be difficult.

An emerging strategic problem for Australia, the US and other democracies is how to protect these cables from intelligence exploitation and attack.

The US has taken measures to tighten control over its critical telecommuni­cations infrastructure. The Justice Department recently blocked a partially con­structed US-Hong Kong under­sea cable, the first time the US has denied an undersea cable licence on security grounds, because of the Chinese partner’s links to Beijing and concerns about Hong Kong’s declining autonomy.

Ensuring that undersea cables are laid by trusted companies along routes less easily disrupted is an essential element of an effective counter strategy. For Australia this means lessening dependence on cables that run through the disputed South China Sea and avoiding those built and controlled by Huawei, now a viable option as the world’s longest fibre-optic undersea cable linking the US with Southeast Asia nears completion.

Built by Nevada-based Trans Pacific Networks, this intercontinental cable project is supported by the US International Development Finance Corporation, established last year by the Trump administration to compete with China’s digital Silk Road initiative.

The 15,200km cable will run from the northern Californian port town of Eureka to Guam, then follow a route to the south of The Philippines before entering the Makassar Strait en route to Singapore. There will be a branch to Tanjung Pakis, 50km north of Jakarta. When completed in 2022, the cable will form a critical element of the region’s digital infrastructure, increasing internet speed while reducing costs.

A Darwin branch would open up substantial commercial and strategic opportunities for Australia. National access to a trusted, high-capacity subsea fibre-optic cable would deepen our engagement with Southeast Asia’s 480 million internet users, and Indonesia and Singapore in particular. Indonesia is on track to become one of the largest e-commerce markets and Singapore is the third most important financial centre, having recently surpassed Hong Kong.

Australian Defence Force activities in northern Australia are constrained by the Top End’s thin telecommunications infrastructure and inadequate high-speed data links. If the north is to become a critical national security hub and forward operating base for the ADF it will need a lot more bandwidth to support the sophisticated operations, training and exercises necessary to achieve these ambitions. Fast, secure, high-bandwidth data is a prerequisite for virtually all modern defence and intelligence platforms, ships, aircraft and drones, including our F-35 joint strike fighters, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the state-of-the-art Triton surveillance drones we are acquiring from the US.

Connecting to the TPN subsea cable would provide a data boost that could make northern Australia an attractive training destination for regional friends and allies by enabling the integration of Queensland and the Northern Territory’s world-class but siloed training ranges. It would turbocharge our data-dependent, fledgling space industry and enhance our capacity to launch Australian-owned and built satellites for commercial and national security purposes from the developing space port on the Gove Peninsula.

A core lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is that improved national resilience and sovereign capabilities are essential to future-proof Australia from external shocks. Strengthening our telecommunication infrastructure should be a strategic priority because the risks are mounting.

A decade ago Karl Rauscher, an adviser to the US government on cybersecurity, drew attention to the vulnerability of undersea cables and the possibility of catastrophic failure to the global economy should they be disrupted by human action or natural disasters such as earthquakes.

The problem is now much more serious because the demand for bandwidth has increased sharply to meet the insatiable appetite for internet-based ser­vices. This has resulted in many new submarine cable systems being laid on established routes, adding to congestion and forming undersea choke points.

To make matters worse, there is little redundancy in the undersea cable system, particularly for intercontinental communications. Satellites cannot come close to making up the difference should key cables fail. Several choke points already have been adversely affected by natural disasters and illegal anchoring, resulting in multiple faults to cables and serious disruption to global communications. In 2006, an earthquake off southern Taiwan caused significant cable damage, slowing internet and telephone traffic across parts of Asia.

Worries about terrorists and hostile states attacking choke points were heightened in April 2013, when operators had to deal with disruptions to multiple undersea communications cables linking Europe to the Middle East and Asia. Alarm bells sounded when the Egyptian coastguard caught three divers trying to cut one of the main cables on the seabed a few hundred metres offshore from the port city of Alexandria.

Of greatest concern to Australia is the Luzon Strait to the north of The Philippines, which is the largest undersea-cable choke point, followed by the Malacca Strait. The Luzon Strait and South China Sea are effectively controlled by the Chinese navy, so Defence and the intelligence com­munity should be thinking hard about the implications for the security of sensitive communication links critical to military capability and intelligence collection. Diversifying our cable traffic away from the South China Sea is the key to maintaining the integrity of our telecommunication system.

But it would be a mistake to regard protecting undersea cables and the openness of the internet as exclusively national-security projects. The pandemic has brought home to all Australians the importance of the internet for everyday life. It is the indispensable communications highway that underlies virtually everything we do. A closed, untrustworthy system would adversely affect business, trade, research and industry, as well as our privacy and democratic freedoms.

The government would be well advised to take a more holistic approach to telecommunications policy that transcends narrow commercial considerations and places a premium on risk reduction rather than cost reduction, a lesson driven home by the pandemic. Narrow, market-based calculations should be replaced by a more strategic approach that takes better account of the need for sovereign capabilities to improve national resilience, and factors in the cost of relying on systems that don’t pass the democratic values test.

Although it might be more efficient, a controlled, politicised internet with built-in shut-up commands would be detrimental to privacy, personal access and security. It is not a system we should support, even if it means inflaming relations with China already under strain from past disputes and the worsening trade conflict. Australia’s national interests can’t be left in the hands of other countries to determine, if we value our independence.

By Alan Dupont
Chief executive of geopolitical risk consultancy the Cognoscenti Group and a
non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
The Australian

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