Concerns over Chinese Data Traps in the Global South

Concerns over Chinese Data Traps in the Global South

Source: “CERN datacentre, CERN, Geneva 3” by gruntzooki is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

In December 2021 Richard Moore, the MI6 Chief, gave an extremely rare interview to the media. During a broadly focused conversation, he raised concerns around China’s actions, particularly its ability to “harvest data from around the world” focusing on the creation of “Data traps”. Data traps occur when an entity has privileged access to critical data about a society and harvests it for their own gain. These data traps create an unequal relationship which could erode state sovereignty through allowing access to critical data about that society. Moore’s statements emerge against a backdrop of increasing geopolitical and technological competition between the West and China. Illuminated by events over the last few years, such as concerns over Huawei, the Microsoft exchanges hack, and the chilling reports of techno-authoritarianism in Xinjiang. But, how does the assertion around the existence of data traps play into wider narratives and concerns? 

Chinese Technological Influence Throughout Africa

Africa represents a continent within which many states have received substantial investment from and interaction with both the Chinese state and technology firms. Evidence of the importance of digital technology to the China-Africa relationships can be seen in the recent FOCAC summit which took place in late November in Dakar, with several technological trends and initiatives discussed and policy banks funding  smart cities and data centers.

Initiatives such as state and private Chinese firms working with local Telcom Operators to build new data hubs, install new fiber optic connections and selling large number of low-cost smartphones, according to Iginio Gagliardone–a research fellow at Oxford University who specializes in ICT for development–is changing the technological face of the continent.  The emerging Chinese technological ecosystem, which is both functional and affordable, is extremely attractive to states and consumers in the Global South.

However, the spread and dominance of Chinese tech has led to several grave concerns. The first being the possible spread of techno-authoritarianism. Certainly, there are numerous examples where the Chinese state and companies have supported African states in implementing authoritarian laws and policies. The first example is in Zimbabwe, who during the drafting of a restrictive cyber law, utilized Huawei technology and expertise. And again, when the Nigerian government suspended the use of Twitter throughout the country, it was reported that it reached out to the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) for help in building its own digital barriers to restrict access to the internet. However, the CAC has explicitly stated that it aims to provide practical cooperation with countries and encourage Chinese enterprises to provide cyber cultural products and services along the Belt and Road.

Another facet of the concerns around data traps is the spread of Chinese surveillance technology which is part of a global trend. A Wall Street Journal Investigation revealed that Huawei employees allegedly helped the Ugandan and Zambian governments to spy on political opponents. The report argued that this confirmed suspicions about Huawei’s threat to civil rights. Linking more specifically back to Moore’s concerns around the erosion of state sovereignty, it was allegedly Huawei employees who intercepted encrypted communications and used cell data to track opponents.

On the concern of sovereignty reduction over sensitive data, it has also been reported that in return for the use of facial recognition software, Cloudwalk–a leading Chinese facial recognition AI firm–has struck a deal with the Zimbabwean government for millions of African facial data to be made available for their algorithmic training.  The evidence suggests Chinese companies have engaged in deals which allow them to access sensitive and critical data, highlighting the potential for an erosion of state sovereignty. 

Linking to the exploitation of this technological domination, there have been accusations that the Chinese state has used its privileged position as a leading tech supplier to further its intelligence aims. This manifests as multiple reports from Reuters and Le Monde accusing Chinese hackers of exploiting deliberately placed backdoors in the African Union’s computer network to steal data.

Is “Data Trap” the Full Picture?

Despite the evident issues with Chinese state and tech company engagement with multiple African states, does this capture the full picture?

It is important to capture the full complexity of the issue. As Galiardone states, there is a much more complex story of engagement. China and Chinese tech companies have demonstrated a lot of flexibility in working within vastly different African nations, supporting the development of nationally rooted visions of an information society. Instead, Galiardone argues that focus should shift from China doing something to Africa, towards interaction with existing institutional setups on the continent. 

This follows Eric Olander’s–a co-founder and managing editor of the China Africa Project–argument, that many similar concerns can also be laid (albeit to a smaller extent) at the feet of the West and Western tech companies. For example, the widespread scandals over the massive data exploitation by Cambridge Analytica exposed in Christopher Wylie’s biography, in multiple nations, for the incumbent government’s benefit. There is also evidence that the NSA has provided surveillance training and technology to nations with fraught human rights records.  It should be noted that are many more examples of Israeli and Italian companies selling surveillance tools to repressive governments throughout the continent.

Risk Outlook

Given this context, the existence of data traps and the surrounding narrative produce several implications to consider:

  • It is misleading and could lead to poor policy responses due to a misunderstanding of the local context to view Chinese technology as a monolithic actor.
  • Such concerns over data traps will continue to drive domestic regulation over technology. Such regulation without unified governing principles will lead to a fractured legal environment worldwide.
  • It allows for continued geopolitical technology friction globally, with states and firms continuing to have to decide between the West and China.
Categories: China, Politics

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