Overseeing PRC Telecomm

The Senate has started looking into tightening oversight of People’s Republic of China telecomms that are operating in the US.

In a forthcoming report, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will level sharp criticism at a group of telecom regulators for failing to scrutinize the Chinese companies and the way they handle data going back nearly two decades. Senate investigators who briefed The Wall Street Journal on their findings said that without proper oversight the Chinese companies “present an unacceptable amount of risk.”

It’s a start.

But even with suitably proper oversight, a larger question remains unaddressed, much less unanswered: why are these companies allowed to operate in the US at all? They are, after all, arms of the PRC government, not free enterprise entities competing on their own recognizance and beholden to the laws of the political jurisdiction within which they operate.

And this:

Representatives for American carriers warned the Senate investigators that the US moves could cause Beijing to retaliate by cutting off their business with Chinese carriers to provide services. That, the carriers have said, would potentially hurt their customers in China, such as US companies, and hinder the carriers’ ability to cooperate with US intelligence-gathering requests.

Couple things about this. Cutting off American carriers’ business inside the PRC would be relatively minor for operations in a nation that demands domestic partners and technology sharing as a condition of doing business within that nation and that demands government-accessible backdoors into foreign companies’ critical software suites as a condition of doing business within that nation.

The bit about hindering US carriers’ ability to cooperate with US intelligence-gathering requests emphasizes a critical difference between us and the PRC. US carriers’ cooperation with our government’s intel requests is entirely voluntary, for all the political pressure a carrier might face for noncompliance. PRC telecomm companies operating in the US have no such option: PRC government requests for intel-related information are required to be satisfied. The only request aspect relates to the type of information the PRC government requires to be collected.

2 thoughts on “Overseeing PRC Telecomm

  1. US carriers’ cooperation with federal requests is not entirely voluntary, though the compulsory cooperation is tightly prescribed under CALEA.

    • Yeah, but even under CALEA, a law enforcement agency must convince a judge to authorize the lawful electronic surveillance, either a priori for actual listening in, or ex post if the surveillance order is only for metadata and the order is challenged. The orders automatically expire after 30-60 days; although they are renewable.
      Also, the orders are only for domestic surveillance (nominally; the target may be foreign-located).
      This sort of surveillance has no such judicial impediment under PRC law: no judge stands in the way, and the telecomms carrier can be required to carry out the government-ordered surveillance directly, from within the foreign nation.
      Eric Hines

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