The chief of British intelligence this week warned of China’s “debt and data traps”.
The former is known to many (and also controversial) and relates to Beijing’s use of credit and aid to advance its agenda around the world. The latter is new.
Richard Moore, head of MI6, explained the idea as follows: âIf you allow another country to have access to really critical data about your society, which over time will undermine your sovereignty, you will no longer have control over that data . “
For Samantha Hoffman, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who has studied China’s engineered authoritarianism, the term âdata trapsâ aptly describes the complex problems she has long studied.
“It’s a useful way to encapsulate the problem – which I believe is that we in democracies don’t know that data is strategic and what that means,” she said, adding that this is her first time here about the term “data traps”.
While the mainstream discussion of China’s data threats tends to focus on specific apps (like TikTok and WeChat), vendors (like Huawei), or behaviors (like surveillance and espionage), Hoffman argues that seemingly innocuous technologies and data can pose significant security risks.
“Datasets, when aggregated, can have incredible value, and when in the hands of an adversary actor, or at least a strategic competitor, it can be a problem across the board,” she said. Not recognizing this is a trap in and of itself.
How Beijing thinks about data
Almost every introductory economics textbook lists the four factors of production – fundamental resources used to produce goods and services: land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship.
To this list of four, Beijing added a fifth: dates that the State Council and the Party’s Central Committee officially designated as a new factor of production in April 2020.
“In the age of agricultural engineering, land is the most important factor of production,” while capital was the most important factor of production during the first, second and third industrial revolutions, argued Chen Wenhui, a trained economist and deputy chairman of the Chinese National Social Insurance Fund Council in an article (link to Chinese) last July. “With the entry into the age of artificial intelligence, data is becoming an important production factor.”
In its 14th Five-Year Big Data Industry Plan, released this week, the Chinese government highlighted the importance of data to its ambitious economic and geopolitical strategies. According to the plan (link in Chinese), data is a “fundamental strategic resource” and China has to make strategic decisions “in order to seize the new opportunity of industrial transformation in the new era”.
China has also taken drastic steps to consolidate state control over the data it collects – both for fear of critical types of data used by foreign actors, as research by ridesharing giant Didi has shown, and for the Party’s control to strengthen the economy by establishing a new legal architecture to ensure full control over this data.
How âdata trapsâ harbor digital supply chain risks
Hoffman argues that the governments of liberal democracies have so far failed to formulate a clear understanding of the strategic value of data, even though China has put data at the center of its economic policies. This can create critical security loopholes for the West as governments choose to deploy Chinese-made security cameras and drones because they think security risks can be carefully managed when it is actually “very difficult to control the digital supply chain,” she said.
Another example, which Hoffman elaborated in a 2019 research report, is a Chinese company called Global Tone Communications Technology Co. Ltd (GTCOM), which describes itself as a “cross-language big data company” and has ties to China Government decrees. GTCOM provides services including conference interpreting for governments and major events such as the Olympic Games, machine translation, and image and video analysis and speech recognition. It also gathers bulk data in dozens of languages ââaround the world – data that GTCOM then forwards to Chinese government agencies to collect military intelligence agencies, identify national security risks, and advance propaganda to shape global discourse. GTCOM did not respond to a request for comment.
“Not all methods used to collect data have to be intrusive, subversive, covert or even illegal – they can be part of normal business data exchange,” Hoffman said last month during a testimony to the US Congress (pdf). “… The data exchange relationships that bring commercial benefits are also the same ones that could endanger a company.”
What Moore meant by the phrase “data traps”, says Hoffman, is that “we need to have an idea of ââthe risk beyond traditional thinking.”