The trade war with China has reached a new industry: subway cars. Congress is considering legislation that would prevent the world’s largest train maker, the Chinese-owned CRRC Corporation, from competing on new contracts in the United States.
Part of the reasoning behind this legislation is economic, and stems from worries about Chinese industries undercutting the competition and dominating key global industries. But another part involves fears about national security. News articles talk about “spy trains,” and the possibility that the train cars might surreptitiously monitor their passengers’ faces, movements, conversations or phone calls.
This is a complicated topic. There is definitely a national security risk in buying computer infrastructure from a country you don’t trust. That’s why there is so much worry about Chinese-made equipment for the new 5G wireless networks.
It’s also why the United States has blocked the cybersecurity company Kaspersky from selling its Russian-made antivirus products to US government agencies. Meanwhile, the chairman of China’s technology giant Huawei has pointed to NSA spying disclosed by Edward Snowden as a reason to mistrust US technology companies.
The reason these threats are so real is that it’s not difficult to hide surveillance or control infrastructure in computer components, and if they’re not turned on, they’re very difficult to find.
Like every other piece of modern machinery, modern train cars are filled with computers, and while it’s certainly possible to produce a subway car with enough surveillance apparatus to turn it into a “spy train,” in practice it doesn’t make much sense. The risk of discovery is too great, and the payoff would be too low. Like the United States, China is more likely to try to get data from the US communications infrastructure, or from the large Internet companies that already collect data on our every move as part of their business model.
While it’s unlikely that China would bother spying on commuters using subway cars, it would be much less surprising if a tech company offered free Internet on subways in exchange for surveillance and data collection. Or if the NSA used those corporate systems for their own surveillance purposes (just as the agency has spied on in-flight cell phone calls, according to an investigation by the Intercept and Le Monde, citing documents provided by Edward Snowden). That’s an easier, and more fruitful, attack path.
We have credible reports that the Chinese hacked Gmail around 2010, and there are ongoing concerns about both censorship and surveillance by the Chinese social-networking company TikTok. (TikTok’s parent company has told the Washington Post that the app doesn’t send American users’ info back to Beijing, and that the Chinese government does not influence the app’s use in the United States.)
Even so, these examples illustrate an important point: there’s no escaping the technology of inevitable surveillance. You have little choice but to rely on the companies that build your computers and write your software, whether in your smartphones, your 5G wireless infrastructure, or your subway cars. And those systems are so complicated that they can be secretly programmed to operate against your interests.
Last year, Le Monde reported that the Chinese government bugged the computer network of the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa. China had built and outfitted the organization’s new headquarters as a foreign aid gift, reportedly secretly configuring the network to send copies of confidential data to Shanghai every night between 2012 and 2017. China denied having done so, of course.
If there’s any lesson from all of this, it’s that everybody spies using the Internet. The United States does it. Our allies do it. Our enemies do it. Many countries do it to each other, with their success largely dependent on how sophisticated their tech industries are.
China dominates the subway car manufacturing industry because of its low prices — the same reason it dominates the 5G hardware industry. Whether these low prices are because the companies are more efficient than their competitors or because they’re being unfairly subsidized by the Chinese government is a matter to be determined at trade negotiations.
Finally, Americans must understand that higher prices are an inevitable result of banning cheaper tech products from China.
We might willingly pay the higher prices because we want domestic control of our telecommunications infrastructure. We might willingly pay more because of some protectionist belief that global trade is somehow bad. But we need to make these decisions to protect ourselves deliberately and rationally, recognizing both the risks and the costs. And while I’m worried about our 5G infrastructure built using Chinese hardware, I’m not worried about our subway cars.
This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.
EDITED TO ADD: I had a lot of trouble with CNN’s legal department with this essay. They were very reluctant to call out the US and its allies for similar behavior, and spent a lot more time adding caveats to statements that I didn’t think needed them. They wouldn’t let me link to this Intercept article talking about US, French, and German infiltration of supply chains, or even the NSA document from the Snowden archives that proved the statements.
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