EDITORIAL: We need joint action against Chinese surveillance

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A number of politicians have in the past week been busy deleting the social media app TikTok, after the Centre for Cyber Security issued a warning to government employees about having the app installed on work devices. TikTok asks for “very broad permissions and access to the device”, and “there is a risk in relation to the Chinese security legislation”, according to the issued warning.

On Monday, the Danish Parliament advised all members and employees not to have TikTok on their devices—a practice which, according to Ingeniøren’s new sister media site Radar, has long been in effect at Frederiksberg Town Hall and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

In light of the drastic changes in the world order, evident from the increasing tensions between the USA and China and most recently culminating in Putin’s war against Ukraine, it is time for the Danish authorities to react. The time when global trade and diplomacy seemed like the path to lasting world peace is over, and we now have to be far more critical of who we share knowledge and insight with. Therefore, technology—especially from a tech-savvy autocracy like China—has become a major political battleground.

Already in 2019, the U.S. Army banned its soldiers from having TikTok installed on their devices, arguing that the Beijing-based company behind TikTok, ByteDance, may compromise national security. That scenario went from a hypothetical fear to concrete reality in December when it was revealed that TikTok has been monitoring American journalists in an attempt to intercept their sources. And in Sweden, it has long been recommended that all politicians and civil servants delete TikTok.

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The fact that Denmark is now following in relation to TikTok is, although not quite timely, at least the right step forward. But, at the same time, it seems like a random pinprick operation and a symbolic policy which only solves a tiny part of a larger problem. There is a need for broader overview of whether social media as well as technology and collaboration in general can be used to monitor and influence us. Thus, it is not a far-fetched thought to imagine that the Chinese regime could gauge European citizens’ loyalty to Taiwan before considering a possible invasion.

The TikTok affair is not the first time we have discussed Chinese technology. Three or four years ago, a telecommunications equipment supplier, Huawei, came into the spotlight with its 5G equipment that could potentially send data to China. The case, which also included barely concealed pressure from China on the Government of the Faroe Islands to get them to choose Huawei, ended with Huawei being rejected in favour of Swedish supplier Ericsson, which was chosen to operate the telecommunications network in Denmark and later also in the Faroe Islands.

On the other hand, there is still the question of whether it is okay to install a Chinese router—for example in the Minister of Defence’s summer house, at Lundbeck’s head of research, or in the Danish police and armed forces—with potential risks for industrial espionage and threats to national security and free democracy.

Security cameras from Chinese manufacturer Hikvision have also been in the spotlight. Last autumn, the Capital Region of Denmark stopped purchases from the Chinese manufacturer on the basis of PET’s security assessment. In November, the Danish Road Directorate bought Hikvision’s equipment to monitor the national roads. The position on Chinese surveillance equipment and the risk associated with it is thus left to the individual institutions, and the decisions are sporadic and without a common line.

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The same randomness is present in the world of research. It recently emerged that 250 Chinese PhD students funded by the Chinese Scholarship Council program are bound by contracts with the Chinese state that require them to safeguard the interests of the regime and never participate in activities that go against the will of the Chinese authorities.

A number of universities have informed Ingeniøren that they have stopped or will stop accepting CSC students and at the same time increase monitoring of international research collaborations. It is a step that can only be welcomed, but here too one could wish for joint action. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Education has together with the country’s universities adopted national guidelines for security, which includes examining the risks of such funding.

Intervention against decades-long international exchange of goods as well as knowledge and students is a delicate balance. Cross-border cooperation—also with countries such as Iran and Russia—is generally very useful for the development of new knowledge. Cooperation can also create an understanding across cultures, which may be a dangerous thing to limit precisely at a time when tensions are high.

There is a need for common guidelines that strike the difficult balance between important security considerations, advancing collaborations, and enriching trade both at a national level and at EU level. We are amidst a big political game where the political and security-related tectonic plates are being shifted. It is neither wise nor fair to let the individual universities, institutions, and companies figure out the rules of the game themselves. /HM & TRB

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