DANIEL VAUGHAN: The Data Cold War

A common refrain on America’s new hawkish stance regarding China is that we’ve entered a second Cold War. It’s an understandable comparison, since some of the most powerful tools of both countries are economic-based. But that’s a slightly outdated way of viewing things.

It’s not an economic or military war, but a data cold war. And whoever possesses the most valuable data will prevail against the other country.

Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute, writing in the Axios Codebook, points out that China is engaged in a widespread effort to “stockpile the world’s virus test data.”

Security experts are concerned the pandemic provides an “opportunity for state-connected companies to compile biometric data, such as DNA samples.” In turn, those samples get used by China to create “massive DNA databases for broad research as well as genetics-based surveillance.”

An article in the Journal of Nature highlighted some of these concerns in 2019. It said that Chinese “police are using a national DNA database along with other kinds of surveillance data, such as from video cameras and facial scanners, to monitor the minority Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang.”

China used a “physicals for all” initiative in 2017 to accomplish the feat of compiling biometric data on many citizens, targeting specific minority groups like Uyghurs.

For reference, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reports that Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have “disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education camps’ in the far west region of Xinjiang, in what some experts call a systematic, government-led program of cultural genocide.”

When China talks about controlling certain groups, they mean slave labor. China is creating biometric datacenters as a means of controlling and monitoring these groups within China.

That’s the domestic side of things for China. Internationally, China has also engaged in various schemes to steal information. Going back several years, China’s cyberwarfare against the United States has consisted of lifting the private information of hundreds of millions of Americans.

Everyone from top-secret government officials to everyday Americans has been targeted, with the most recent hack hitting 145 million American citizens.

American health data collected as a part of the COVID-19 response is the new tempting target for Chinese hackers.

In a way, the concerns mirror the Trump administration’s push to keep the Chinese telecom company Huawei out of America. The fear over Huawei is that the Chinese government is using its 5G networks to spy on allies and enemies.

Chinese eagerness to build 5G networks anywhere, heavily subsidized at times, lends credence to these concerns. China is creating a large intelligence net for itself — something the U.S. should keep away from itself or its citizens.

On the biometric data front, while Chinese hacking will always be a concern, there’s also the concern of Chinese-based or -sourced testing companies. Axios notes a major one: BGI, “(formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute), a leading Chinese gene sequencing and biomedical firm, which has distributed more than 10 million COVID-19 tests to over 80 countries worldwide. BGI’s tests were approved by the FDA for use within the United States.”

Axios notes that while other Chinese companies are on U.S. export blacklists, BGI is not. As the United States creates millions of testing data points each week and growing, it makes sense to clamp down on China’s capacity to access or steal American personal or health information.

Looking at all the maneuvers between the two countries as they position for a kind of “great power conflict,” it’s easy to fall back on a Cold War mindset. But while the economic mindset is similar to the US-Soviet conflict, the end goals are different. The focus now is on controlling or owning information and data. The Chinese want access to the marketplace not just to sell their goods, but to steal products, research, and data from America.

When the Soviets lost to the Americans, they did so because they fundamentally could not keep up with the rate of technological innovation that America cranked out. Capitalism made the American economy so complex and dynamic that it disproved an entire generation’s ideas on centrally planned government efficiencies. Experts were too blinkered to run a generalized economy like America.

The lesson China learned from this was that they could keep their centralized power if they got access to the marketplace, and then stole and sold cheap knockoff versions of American products. At first, this was purely for economic reasons. But now, because the Chinese government still relies on central planning and direction, they can only achieve innovation if they steal and then adapt, improve, or commodify the idea.

That means the most valuable commodity in the U.S.–China clash is not the economy, military, or foreign policy, even though they all have their place, but rather data. The more data you have, the more possibilities you have in finding an edge against a competitor. America’s economy bases itself on the free flow of information and ideas, so this kind of challenge, inherently global plagiarism of sorts, is new.

Figuring out how to cut off China’s capacity to steal American ideas and ingenuity will go a long way toward forcing the Chinese economy to innovate or die. If the central planners can’t cheat off America’s homework, we might learn they have far more weaknesses than we ever expected.

The U.S. aims are straightforward: Protect American data and kick out Chinese companies connected to the Chinese Communist Party.

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