China may use Belt and Road initiative for electronic surveillance: Report

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While it may appear that China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is all about infrastructure development for ports, roads and power plants but the reality is that it is aimed at establishing a digital matrix of communications across the continent, which Beijing could use for electronic surveillance, says a report on CNBC.

Citing a 2015 white paper released by various Chinese government bodies, Nyshka Chandran of CNBC writes that boosting connectivity will enable information exchanges, which can bring about "mutual benefit and win-win cooperation." But the move could not be without "geopolitical implications if foreign governments allow Chinese technology companies -- believed to carry close ties with the state -- to install complex data communications systems."

Quoting researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations, the CNBC report said that a big fear is that Chinese players will insert 'backdoor mechanisms that could increase (Beijing's) intelligence and propaganda operations in BRI partner countries.

"State-owned China Mobile, the world's biggest telecom carrier by subscriber count, is currently building optical fiber cable projects linking Beijing to Myanmar, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan.Private player Huawei signed a deal last year to build a cable system linking Pakistan to Kenya via Djibouti. Talks are also underway for state-owned China Telecom to help build fiber-optic links in the Arctic Circle. Cables, which transfer massive amounts of personal, government and financial data, are controlled by telecommunications firms. So, when it comes to enforcing security, regulatory grey areas emerge," the article said.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, that infrastructure can be used to help Beijing gain information. For example, technicians can bend or clamp the fibers to allow data to leak out or bypass encryption, it said. "Prior actions taken by the Chinese government, such as installing backdoors in encryption technology, suggest that it will take similar actions when laying down fiber optic cables in other countries", the article said quoting the note.

It further said that while these projects under BRI may benefit developing economies, there are serious concerns that China could use these networks to exert pressure on other states or engage in electronic surveillance, the article said quoting a recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

"In 5G, China's commercial and geopolitical objectives are closely aligned," the report said quoting Elsa Kania, a Fulbright specialist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. According to Kania corporates could be legally required or co-opted to support and participate in Chinese intelligence which raises concerns about the implications for China's future espionage capabilities, while also creating leverage that could be exercised for coercive purposes.

The article said that at the heart of the matter is deep-rooted suspicion about the data-sharing practices of Chinese firms. "In 2012, U.S. intelligence chiefs deemed Huawei and ZTE products a risk to national security, claiming the companies collaborate with China's government to spy, steal trade secrets and cast cyber attacks," it said.

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