Trafficking Data: China’s Pursuit of Digital Sovereignty

The author of The Diplomat, Mercy Kuo, regularly engages subject matter experts, policy professionals, and strategic thinkers from around the world to elicit their diverse views on US policy in Asia. This conversation with Dr. Aynne Kokas Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia; CK Yen President of the Miller Center for Public Affairs and author of the forthcoming book “Data traffic: how China is winning the battle for digital sovereignty (Oxford, November 2022) – is number 337 in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series”.

Explain China’s data governance policy and pursuit of cyber sovereignty.

The Chinese government asserts cyber sovereignty or control over all of China’s digital resources, including servers, user data, technical infrastructure, and technology companies operating in China, both within the country and globally. China’s Cyber ​​Security Law of 2017 requires companies that provide critical information infrastructure in China (broadly defined) to store their data on servers run by the Chinese government, allowing the Chinese government to access resources such as iCloud data China-based Apple. Extending that oversight outside of China, the Hong Kong National Security Law of 2020 gives the Chinese government control over what it considers crimes against China’s national security committed outside of Hong Kong, including data protection issues. Finally, the China Data Security Act of 2021 empowers the Chinese government to conduct national security audits on companies operating in China that collect user data. These laws are just the tip of the iceberg of China’s efforts to extend data oversight beyond its borders.

Analyze how China interconnects sovereignty in the United States.

The Chinese government extends sovereignty in the United States by using network platforms to exert control over Chinese companies operating in the United States and US companies operating in China. Companies and users voluntarily participate in this trade in goods and services for convenience, profit or entertainment.

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Take TikTok, for example: While the company has made significant efforts to create a firewall between its US businesses and China, its parent company, ByteDance, remains subject to data security audits by the Chinese government. As a company with a dominant presence in the Chinese market through its Chinese social media platform Douyin, ByteDance cannot afford to exit the Chinese market. However, because the Chinese government has designated TikTok’s algorithm as a national security asset, ByteDance also does not have the option to spin off its TikTok business. TikTok is the most well-known example, but a similar dynamic exists for companies across a wide range of industries. In my book, I describe everything from farm tools to baby monitors.

What is most important to note about how China connects network sovereignty is how China’s efforts to extend its cyber sovereignty in the United States build on how the US tech landscape already exploits network data. the users.

If Chinese social media platforms function as critical infrastructure, as you posit, how are they used as surveillance tools?

Social media platforms exemplify the exploitative model of US data governance and how that can amplify China’s global digital oversight. Many users are aware that their actions face surveillance on social networks. And indeed, the surveillance or censorship of users who post politically sensitive content about Hong Kong or Xinjiang has drawn media attention to Chinese platforms like WeChat and TikTok.

The most often overlooked form of surveillance, however, is what these platforms can do with all the data they collect, keeping tabs on not just individual users, but also how social media and communities perform as a whole. . Such insights are invaluable in generating and spreading disinformation on those same platforms. They can serve as the backbone of future products that attract more successful users due to their attractive algorithm.

Describe China’s methods and extent of surveillance of biological data.

Biodata surveillance is rapidly evolving due to rapid changes in China’s COVID-19 policy. The Chinese government has taken the global lead in developing network tools to monitor citizens and their movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such monitoring occurs through codes issued to individuals called jiankangmaor health codes, which shape how citizens can move based on their exposures and known health symptoms.

Outside of China, Chinese tech companies like Xiaomi collect users’ personal data through consumer products that monitor everything from heart rate to activity level. Chinese laboratories are also certified to process tests from the US due to the open system of laboratory standardization in the United States. Most people in the United States don’t realize that HIPAA doesn’t protect your health data internationally. Therefore, US biodata can supply China’s national gene bank database.

Assess US policy and trade efforts to counter China’s digital sovereignty.

America is in a dilemma. Exploitative data ecosystems that monetize the daily lives of users with only the slightest illusions of consent built Silicon Valley. Academic Shoshana Zuboff refers to this as “surveillance capitalism.” US tech companies have long been an engine of US national power, strengthening the US economy, attracting top tech talent from around the world, and spreading US influence. USA worldwide. The Chinese government’s efforts to collect user data in the United States are based on these exploitative practices. However, with China’s efforts to expand cyber sovereignty, the features of this system become flawed.

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Tech companies, both American and Chinese, have become too big to be regulated by the US government. Efforts to regulate Big Tech at the Federal Trade Commission have proven difficult. Disagreements within and between political parties have delayed efforts to protect the security of user data through bills such as the US Data Privacy and Protection Act. Presidential executive orders from the Biden and Trump administrations faced significant pushback from corporate America. China, by contrast, does not allow foreign social media platforms, strictly controls data collection by foreign companies, and enjoys much more latitude in regulating Chinese tech companies.

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