President Trump declared yet another national emergency, designed to allow him to ban the sale of products made by the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The Trump administration suggested the company, closely affiliated with the Chinese government, might use its products to spy on the U.S. The U.S. is also accusing Huawei of subverting U.S. sanctions against Iran, which is why as Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada last December.
The effects of trying to isolate China through a ban on telecommunications when Huawei is the foremost manufacturer of 5G technology—fifth generation high speed wireless Internet connectivity—which most other countries around the world are interested in purchasing, is hard to determine. The Real News Network’s Greg Wilpert spoke to Yasha Levine, author of “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet” about Huawei.
Levine began by focusing on comments made by United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross who said “there is a significant danger to national security and to our foreign policy.”
“[Ross] confirmed something that is pretty high tech and kind of on the cutting edge,” Levine said, “that the United States government sees internet platforms and telecommunications platforms and technology as geopolitical weapons, and that if you let a foreign country provide your telecommunication and telecommunications infrastructure, that in essence is a penetration of American national security.”
Levine characterized the U.S. accusations and concern about 5G as “an imperial struggle.” The U.S.’s power is being encroached upon, yet it is dependent on global telecommunications, while China, the “dominant telecommunications supplier,” expands globally. The ban, Levine observed, might help the U.S. and other Western companies compete with China because “China is is the main player in this field” and “if you close off big chunks of the market for the main competitor … it’ll help.” The nature of the global market, however, would make it hard for the U.S. and others not to be dependent on China. Whether U.S. business would ultimately benefit from this ban is not clear.
“The telecommunications companies and Silicon Valley are not really supportive of this ban. I mean, they’re kind of hedging their bets: They’re not criticizing the Trump administration but they’re also not like, gung-ho about it,” Levine said. “They know the economies of China and put in these supply chains that produce all the devices that we use, from the computers that we’re using right now, to our cell phones. They’re extremely interlinked. A lot of them are assembled [in China] and a lot of parts are sourced in China.”
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
On Wednesday evening, President Trump declared yet another national emergency. This time the declaration was designed to enable the president to ban the sale of products made by the Chinese high tech company Huawei. The conflict between the U.S. and Huawei has been brewing for a while now. Part of it has to do with general accusations that the Trump administration has leveled against the company that its products might be used to spy on the United States; that is, Huawei is closely affiliated with the government of China. And as all cell phone companies migrate towards fifth generation high speed wireless Internet connectivity, also known as 5G, the U.S. government says that Huawei could use its technology to spy on all Internet company communications that runs through its networks. Here’s what Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had to say about the Huawei ban.
WILBUR ROSS: The purpose we have in mind here is we think there is a significant danger to national security and to our foreign policy of the existing situation at Huawei.
GREG WILPERT: Unfortunately for the U.S., Huawei is the foremost manufacturer of 5G equipment, and most other countries around the world are very interested in purchasing Huawei technology. Meanwhile, the U.S. is also accusing Huawei of subverting U.S. sanctions against Iran, which is why its Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada last December.
Joining me now to discuss the ban and its implications for Internet security is Yasha Levine. Yasha is an investigative journalist and author of the book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Thanks for joining us today, Yasha.
YASHA LEVINE: Thanks for having me on.
GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with the main accusation that the Trump administration has been leveling against Huawei, that the company represents a security concern. Huawei, by the way, has denied vehemently that it represents this kind of security issue and has promised to sign ironclad contracts that it would not engage in surveillance. Now, what are your thoughts on this accusation?
YASHA LEVINE: Well, it’s interesting. You know, Wilbur Ross is kind of a funny guy, because I have a sense that he doesn’t really use the Internet. He seems almost incapable of maybe even using a telephone. But he confirmed something that is pretty high tech and kind of on the cutting edge. It’s something that I’ve written about quite a bit in the past few years. Is that he confirmed that the United States government sees Internet platforms and telecommunications platforms and technology as geopolitical weapons, and that if you let a foreign country provide your telecommunication and telecommunications infrastructure, that, in essence, is a penetration of American national security, just by having their technology, you know, within our borders.
So it’s a confirmation of something that is kind of becoming more and more obvious as the Internet proliferates around the world, which is that Internet platforms, not only companies like Huawei, but companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter, are extensions, are geo political extensions, of the countries that they represent.
GREG WILPERT: Now, as you mentioned–so these security concerns are very real. And so then it would make sense for the U.S. to raise it as an issue. But what about–and you’ve already touched on this–but what about the security concerns of ordinary citizens more generally, not just with regard to Huawei? I mean, would a network made by a U.S. manufacturer such as, let’s say, Cisco, really be any more secure for surveillance than one made by Huawei?
YASHA LEVINE: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t–I mean, I guess it depends who’s doing the surveilling. I think all telecommunications infrastructure is surveilled. And you know, the U.S. government, as the largest sort of power in the world and with the largest military intelligence presence in the world, is the largest surveillance entity, right. So it has, it maintains partnerships with American allies all around the world. It has, you know, if you look at Edward Snowden’s documents you see that the NSA maintains or tries to tap just about every important exchange point in the world. Does China spy on Americans? I mean, I’m sure they do. But I tend to not really think that China is really interested in maybe particular, you know, people in America. Maybe there’s some dissidents or something that it would be interested in.
But generally speaking, you know, look. We talk about this, we talk about elements of imperial struggle, essentially, right. You have two countries, you know, America, kind of a giant empire, a global power, a superpower. And it’s being encroached by its power, its global power, is also dependent on its telecommunications reach. You know, the platforms that people use around the world to communicate. Those are very much connected to power for America around the world.
And so you have China, which is sort of now, you know, expanding globally outside of its borders and is now a dominant telecommunications supplier. And of course you’re going to have this kind of response from from the U.S. government. It’s a kind of paranoid response. And I tend to think that most Americans don’t have anything to worry about from Chinese spying, because I don’t understand what it would have to to gain from spying on ordinary Americans. Other people might disagree.
GREG WILPERT: That raises the question, though, I mean, what is the alternative? Let’s say if it’s right now a choice between being spied upon by Huawei, or being spied upon by U.S. based companies, I mean, for the ordinary citizen, what would be a better alternative of dealing with this particular problem of surveillance?
YASHA LEVINE: Well, look, we don’t have power as people, as users of the Internet and as users of telephone technology and telecommunications. We have no say in this. I mean, this is outside of our control. You know, I mean, in America we can’t even get the government to provide universal health care. We’re talking about something that is really abstract to most people. You know, it’s like, are you going to be spied on by a Cisco-NSA partnership, or some partnership with, you know, between Huawei and Chinese intelligence agencies? You know, it’s like, you know, I’m not sure what to even answer. And what we can do in America as sort of our own–you know, we can focus on our own government and our own institutions. But this is really outside of our control.
Look, you know, the entire internet, just about everything that we use on the Internet is spying on us. You know, from beginning from, from our WhatsApp, to our Facebook Messenger, to our Facebook page, to our Google email account, to our Gmail accounts, to our Apple phones, to–everything is spying on us and is mining that information for money, but is also sharing that information with U.S. intelligence agencies. And so, you know, the underlying sort of business model and kind of operating mode of all this telecommunications technology around us is surveillance. And it’s for-profit surveillance most of the time. And so, you know, it’s a kind of a strange world we walk into where we have this fight between two big powers on this big level, and there’s some industry and business, of course, on the line. So of course American and European manufacturers that are in competition with Huawei might favor restrictions on their business, right. So we walk into the sort of imperial and big business struggle. And I think for your average person, your average internet consumer, it’s pretty hard to know which side to come down on and what it all means to you, because it’s very abstract.
GREG WILPERT: Now I want to turn to the tech war aspect of all of this. Many analysts are saying that what this is really about is who controls the most advanced technology in the sector, particularly in 5G. Now, how is the U.S. doing in that area? And would a ban on Huawei technology help the U.S. improve its standing at all?
YASHA LEVINE: It’s a good question. I mean, I think. I think … You know, obviously the 5G is billed as this new frontier, as a new era of communications, where it’ll allow this sort of ubiquitous computing, always on. And of course it’s a big market segment. And of course China is is the main player in this field, and so of course it’ll help Western companies and American companies compete if you close off big chunks of the market for a main competitor. So of course it’ll help.
Now, I mean, what are the–but no one really knows. You know, this is a very strange world we’re kind of walking into, because I know that industries that represent the telecommunications companies and Silicon Valley, you know, are kind of not really supportive of this ban. I mean, they’re kind of hedging their bets. They’re not criticizing the Trump administration. But they’re also not gung ho about it. Because they know that the, you know, the economies of China and sort of these supply chains, right, that produce all the devices that we use, from the computers that we’re using right now to our cell phones, they’re extremely interlinked. So a lot of them are assembled, and a lot of parts are sourced in China. Also a lot of American companies and European companies supply parts to Chinese manufacturers. So it’s not like there’s a hard line between America and China. And if it’s like–there’s America, you know, and then there’s China, and if we cut off China, America prospers. A lot of these companies depend on Chinese business. A lot of chip makers, a lot of camera makers, a lot of little, little parts that go into antennas, and things like that. There’s so many little components, and they’re not all made in China. Some of them are made in America. Some of them made in Europe. And so it’s unclear what the ultimate result of this will be, whether it will hurt American businesses, and which businesses will it hurt, which businesses will favor. It’s not quite clear.
GREG WILPERT: I think that’s a really good point that you made about the competition, but we’re going to have to leave it there for now. But I’m sure we’re going to come back to it again. I was speaking to Yasha Levine, investigative journalist and author of the book Surveillance Valley. Thanks again, Yasha, for having joined us today.
YASHA LEVINE: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.