National security arguments are starting to develop quite a smell!

national security
Image credit: Everett Collection | shutterstock.com

Am I the only one questioning why governments have suddenly become paranoid about national security over the internet when it is we who should probably be paranoid about governments abusing it at our cost?

Prior to the Snowden disclosures about the NSA’s activities spying on Mr and Mrs Citizen, we thought only Google was privy to our every activity, despite the warnings as far back as 2006 that our own personal data had become a commodity and was being traded openly to all sorts of would-be marketers wanting to target specific market sectors and individuals. That data was proclaimed be ‘the new oil’, but even as ‘oil’ prices dropped in value, data collection continued to climb.

Then we all became addicted to smartphones and loaded them up with a plethora of apps without reading the terms and conditions that granted them access to every conceivable personal detail, not only on our own device but also on devices that our devices interacted with.

Europe responded with GDPR legislation that, in all honesty, will probably make little difference to data grabbers, but will simply alter the way they use that data. It’s not because we are unaware that we are all feeding those massive repositories in the sky, and that our data will be used in some way to influence our decision-making sometime in the future – it’s actually because we really couldn’t give a damn any more. It’s too late to worry about our discussions with Alexa and Siri and what Amazon thinks we need to buy and what website or roadside stop Google wants to direct us to. It’s simply too late to care. We used to think ubiquitous surveillance would be implemented by governments – turns out it was by the Brins, Pages and Zuckerbergs of the world.

Which makes you wonder why governments have suddenly taken a big interest in the perceived national security threats of using equipment from certain technology vendors. Hang on, aren’t those same governments the ones that were spying on us? I purposely used the words ‘perceived national security threats’ because no government has yet been willing or even able to provide proof of the peril faced by using core network equipment from those vendors.

Paranoid hypocrisy

It is probably no surprise that the companies posing these supposed threats are from China, and are bearing the brunt of President Trump’s wrath via his current trade war (his alleged favor to President Xi Jinping over the ZTE ban notwithstanding). Maybe it’s time to remind him that it was American industrialists who fed the Chinese economy not so long ago when they discovered it was cheaper to produce goods in China and export them to the USA than produce them locally. They did very well out of it too, many of them good mates of the President.

They had no qualms sharing their technology with their Chinese partners because it meant money in the bank and, anyway, they could keep developing new technologies at home to keep ahead of any threats. Where were the security concerns when the dollars kept rolling in, and what happened to the innovation and R&D budgets of those American and European technology giants who had stakeholders baying for more profits?

In the last ten years, Chinese tech companies have been pumping billions of dollars into their own R&D, often attracting the brains that had been cast off in money-saving mass retrenchments in the USA and Europe. Just as the Japanese cornered the US TV market in the 1980s by producing better goods at cheaper prices, so Chinese tech companies like Huawei and ZTE have conquered the telecoms equipment and handset markets in not only their own country, but the world in general.

But this time it is too late for the USA to stem the tide, and just like the TV makers of old, most American telco tech development has all but disappeared. Like RCA and its TVs, Lucent Technologies is but a fading memory of the glory days, as with many of its European counterparts.

The only thing left is to swing public attention to the one thing governments can do without any proof or justification and that is to bring up that old chestnut: the threat to ‘national security‘. Is this the same ‘national security’ concern the NSA had when it blatantly and illegally collected personal data? Or when the Russians disrupted and influenced US elections?

Australia joins national security bandwagon

Now the Australian government – which has basically followed the USA everywhere since the Battle of the Coral Sea – has joined Trump’s economic war against China, and Huawei in particular, by threatening to ban it from all national infrastructure projects in addition to the NBN. The government is so terrified it even managed to block Huawei from building subsea cables in the Solomon Islands.

The arguments being put forward are nonsensical and, so far – as usual – without proof. Huawei, however, has proven itself in every market of the world by offering technology and services at competitive prices. Sure, the company has offered finance packages to countries that could not afford the cost of building out networks (purportedly supported by the Chinese government in some cases), but European network providers did exactly the same thing towards the end of the 20th Century.

Many developing nations have blossomed in terms of GDP growth thanks to these networks, apparently unconcerned by the security threats others are so fearful of. If Messrs Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are so concerned, why don’t they simply encrypt all data going over core networks no matter who supplies them? Oh, hang on, if everyone else follows suit they won’t be able to spy on them will they?

If the USA and Australia really believe in the capitalist, free-market system they have preached for 70 years (and encouraged China to adopt), then maybe they should compete head on with the likes of Huawei and support innovation in their own countries. If US and European companies feel hard done by, maybe they should think about investing 10% of their turnover in R&D and stop moaning they are being left behind.

Better still, why not partner with those they fear most, or set up their own R&D labs in China where so much innovation originates? Times are changing, disruption is disrupting and things may never be the same as the old days. But banning free competition based on unproven allegations is no way to move forward. For Australia to turn its back on the one company that has a proven track record of delivering NBNs in other countries on time and on budget seems ludicrous. But then, this is the same government that thought fiber-to-the-node supplemented by an aging copper network for the last mile was a brilliant idea. Need I say more?

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Tony Poulos
About Tony Poulos 83 Articles
Tony is a freelance writer, regular speaker, MC and chairman for the telecoms and digital services industries worldwide. He has founded and managed software and services companies, acts a market strategist and was editor of DisruptiveViews and is now managing editor of Disruptive.Asia. In June 2011, Tony was recognized as one of the 25 most influential people in telecom software worldwide.

2 Comments

  1. I remember when the Snowdon releases included a snippet about how the “national security players” had derailed industry attempts to standardize encryption needs across all communications.

    I suspect the problem is not that the Chinese tech will steal data, but that the Chinese equipment was not designed to host the wished-for surveillance, and thus the security challenge arises from not being able to survey, rather than from the threat of foreign unauthorized surveillance.

  2. It’s funny to me that the politicians worried about “national security” are focused on network tech, which is so 20th Century. I would assume spies of any stripe could probably collect more valuable info via smartphone apps – or they could steal it from Equifax, buy it from GoogleBook, etc. It’s easier and cheaper.

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