If you can't beat them, join them.
The recently expanded Clean Network initiative has only one major target. That is the People's Republic of China (PRC) under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
There is a deep-seated lack of trust within the US administration when it comes to Chinese tech. Be this Huawei's 5G or companies such as Alibaba, Baidu or Tencent. In Secretary of State Pompeo's August 5th press statement, he spoke of “untrusted PRC carriers” being a “danger to national security”. Perhaps they are but as history has shown us, the USA have their own bunch of untrustworthy carriers that posed a danger to the privacy to everyone across the nation.
Launching the initiative, Secretary Pompeo outlined his Clean Network as follows:
Clean Carrier, to keep out “untrusted” Chinese telecommunications connecting the US and foreign destinations;
Clean Store, to remove “untrusted” Chinese apps from US apps stores;
Clean Apps, to prevent Chinese companies such as Huawei from pre-installing or making available for download on their devices US apps;
Clean Cloud, to keep Chinese cloud service providers from accessing data on Americans;
Clean Cable, to ensure the Chinese government cannot “compromise” information carried through undersea cables.
When it came to undersea cables, Secretary Pompeo said that Huawei “significantly underbids” rival companies on multiple procurements to connect Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and Europe “using Chinese state-backed underseas technology”
Referring to cloud services, the secretary said the state department will be working closely with the Department of Commerce and other agencies to:
“limit the ability of Chinese cloud service providers to collect, to store, and to process vast amounts of data and sensitive information here in the United States”.
It is not just the carriers but Chinese apps as well which, according to Pompeo:
“threaten privacy, proliferate viruses and spread propaganda and disinformation.”
One cannot deny that the Chinese would do such a thing but there is a growing number of other apps from many countries which are definitely up to no good. Trump's executive order to ban TikTok from operating in the USA was part of an effort to force a sale of the app to an American company, probably Microsoft.
Cynics might suggest that Trump's move against TikTok was in reaction to the coordinated effort by users of the app which sabotaged turnout at the President's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma through fake ticket reservations. Trump declared that the app:
“threatened the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.”
The order said that:
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information – potentially allowing China to track the location of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”
This could all be taken somewhat out of perspective given all the other smartphone apps which collect and sell user data. Admittedly, given the tracking abilities of TikTok, it is understandable that the US Senate has unanimously approved a bill banning federal employees from using the app on government issued devices. Senator Josh Hawley who sponsored the bill said:
“I'm encouraged by the bipartisan support we have seen in this body to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable and includes holding accountable those corporations who would just do China's bidding.”
Pavel Durov who is founder and CEO of Telegram wrote:
“For decades the US has been perceived as the defender of free trade and free speech...the US (or at least the Trump administration) seems to have become less enthusiastic about those values. Soon every big country is likely to use ‘national security’ as a pretext to fracture international tech companies. And ironically it is the US companies like Facebook or Google that are likely to lose most from the fallout.”
Trump's focus on TikTok and the threat of its data collection activities should not blind us to the threat of homegrown risks. Babel Street is a data collecting company which promotes on its website one of its products as a:
“geo-enabled, text-analytics, social media and web monitoring platform designed to meet the needs of customers by fully leveraging public available information in this era of overwhelming quantities of geographically diverse, multi-lingual data.”
What this really means is:
"We harvest all your private stuff and sell it".
The Fourth Amendment, in theory, protects the rights of Americans wherein a warrant or court order is needed to obtain information such as location data. This was reinforced in a landmark decision in June of 2018 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of digital privacy, stating that the police needed warrants to gather phone location data. ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said:
“This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans' privacy rights in the digital age. The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment protections.”
But none of this appears to have stopped the US Secret Service from purchasing the movement records of Americans from Babel Street. A Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that the Secret Service worked with Babel Street between September 28, 2017 and September 27, 2018 with payments totaling $1,999,394 involved.
This document outlines other significant data that was to be collected:
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said in a statement that
“It is clear that multiple federal agencies have turned to purchasing Americans' data to buy their way around Americans' Fourth Amendment Rights. I'm drafting legislation to close this loophole, and ensure the Fourth Amendment isn't for sale.”
Stay safe and stay secure, people!
The Privacy Advocate