Chinese Espionage Threatens U.S. Telecom Security, ex-FCC Head Says

Chinese cyber spying poses the greatest threat to U.S. telecommunication networks and internet freedom, former Trump administration Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai said in a recent interview.

Pai, who served as FCC chairman beginning in 2017, relinquished his post on January 20 to Jessica Rosenworcel, installed as acting FCC chairwoman by new President Joseph Biden.

Federal regulators will be hard pressed to secure telecommunications from Chinese state sponsored cyber surveillance, economic espionage and network malware attacks, Pai told Reuters.

“There are a number of bad things that can happen when insecure equipment is used to handle sensitive information,” he said. During his three year term, Pai supported securing the nation’s communications networks from foreign cyber intrusion, backing a ban on Chinese telecom suppliers Huawei and ZTE over concerns surveillance back doors would be baked into their equipment. In December, 2020, the FCC also moved to terminate China Telecom’s authorization to set up shop in the U.S.

As with Huawei and ZTE, the decision to exit China Telecom from the U.S. market did not come in a vacuum. President Trump had previously signed into law the Secure and Trusted Communications Act, which barred U.S. companies from using federal funds to purchase equipment from Huawei and ZTE, and establishing a program to reimburse small communications providers for upgrading to trusted products.

A 2017 Chinese law mandating citizens disclose sensitive information to the government sparked legitimate Congressional fears that Chinese telecom suppliers would pry open U.S. network vulnerabilities if so prodded.

“The Chinese Communist Party has a very determined world view,” Pai told Reuters. “They want to dominate this space and exert their will–even beyond their own borders. That is a serious threat not just to internet freedom but to national security for us and for many of our allies.”

There’s more than a thimble full of irony in Pai’s concern for internet freedom. On his watch in 2017 the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality, rolling back legislation that forbade large internet service suppliers from slowing internet speeds on some websites or charging consumers more for certain services. Rosenworcel is said to favor reinstating net neutrality.

On the other hand, his warnings of Chinese dominance of wireless technology are well founded, backed by a recent study by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC) that the country that controls fifth-generation (5G) wireless telecommunications infrastructure will dominate the next 20 years of technological innovation, economic growth and prosperity. Unless the U.S. can develop a national play book to combat a decades-long, uber-aggressive strategy in which China has mobilized “state-owned and state-influenced” companies to seize dominance in the market for a number of emerging technologies, the U.S. will struggle to solve its “China problem,” the CSC said.

 

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