In December 2021, Richard Moore, the head of MI6, gave an extremely rare interview to the media. During a broadly focused conversation, he raised concerns about China’s actions, particularly its ability to “harvest data from around the world” by focusing on creating “data traps”. Data traps occur when an entity has privileged access to critical company data and harvests it for its own benefit. These data traps create an unequal relationship that could erode state sovereignty by allowing access to critical data about this society. Moore’s statements emerge against a backdrop of growing geopolitical and technological competition between the West and China. Illuminated by the events of the past few years, such as concerns over Huawei, the Microsoft exchange hack, and chilling reports of techno-authoritarianism in Xinjiang. But how does the assertion around the existence of data traps play into larger narratives and concerns?
Chinese technological influence throughout Africa
Africa represents a continent in which many states have received substantial investments and interactions with the Chinese state and technology companies. Evidence of the importance of digital technology to China-Africa relations can be seen in the recent FOCAC summit that took place in late November in Dakar, with several technology trends and initiatives discussed and political bank funding. smart cities and data centers.
Initiatives such as Chinese public and private companies working with local telecom operators to build new data hubs, install new fiber optic connections and sell large numbers of smartphones at low prices, according to Iginio Gagliardone, a researcher at the University of Oxford specializing in ICT for development – is changing technological face of the continent. China’s emerging technology ecosystem, both functional and affordable, is extremely attractive to governments and consumers around the world. Global South.
However, the spread and dominance of Chinese technology has raised several serious concerns. The first being the possible spread of techno-authoritarianism. Certainly, there are many examples where the Chinese state and corporations have supported African states in implementing authoritarian laws and policies. The first example is that of Zimbabwe which, when drafting a restrictive cybersecurity law, used Huawei technology and know-how. And again, when the Nigerian government suspended the use of Twitter nationwide, it was reported that it contacted the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to help build its own digital barriers. to restrict network access. the Internet. However, the CAC has explicitly stated that it aims to provide practical cooperation with countries and encourage Chinese enterprises to provide cyber-cultural products and services throughout the world. belt and road.
Another facet of data trap concerns is the spread of Chinese surveillance technology that is part of a global trend. A Wall Street Journal investigation found that Huawei employees allegedly helped the Ugandan and Zambian governments spy on political opponents. The report argued that this confirmed suspicions about Huawei’s threat to civil rights. Related more specifically to Moore’s concerns about the erosion of state sovereignty, it was allegedly Huawei employees who intercepted encrypted communications and used cellular data to follow opponents.
In terms of reducing sovereignty over sensitive data, it was also reported that in exchange for using facial recognition software, Cloudwalk – a leading Chinese facial recognition AI company – concluded a deal with the Zimbabwean government for millions of African facial data. be made available to them algorithmic training. Evidence suggests that Chinese companies have engaged in deals that allow them access to sensitive and critical data, underscoring the potential for the erosion of state sovereignty.
Related to the exploitation of this technological dominance, there have been accusations that the Chinese state has used its privileged position as a leading technology provider to further its intelligence objectives. This is manifested in multiple reports from Reuters and Le Monde accusing Chinese hackers of exploiting deliberately placed backdoors in the African Union’s computer network to steal data.
Is “Data Trap” the complete picture?
Despite the obvious issues with Chinese state and tech company engagement with several African states, does this paint the whole picture?
It is important to grasp the full complexity of the issue. As Galiardone says, there is a much more complex story of engagement. China and Chinese technology companies have shown great flexibility in working in very different African countries, supporting the development of nationally anchored visions of an information society. Instead, Galiardone argues that the focus should shift from China doing something about Africa, to interacting with existing institutional setups on the continent.
This follows the argument of Eric Olander, co-founder and editor of the China Africa Project, that many similar concerns can also be laid (albeit to a lesser extent) at the feet of Western and Western tech companies. . For example, the widespread scandals over the massive exploitation of data by Cambridge Analytica exposed in the biography of Christopher Wylie, in several countries, for the benefit of the government in place. There is also evidence that the NSA has provided training and surveillance technology to countries with heavy human rights records. It should be noted that there are many other examples of Israeli and Italian companies selling surveillance tools to repressive governments all over the world. the continent.
In this context, the existence of data traps and the narrative surrounding them produce several implications to consider:
- It is misleading and could lead to wrong policy responses due to a misunderstanding of the local context to view Chinese technology as a monolithic player.
- These concerns about data traps will continue to guide national regulation of the technology. Such regulation without unified guiding principles will lead to a fractured legal environment around the world.
- This allows for continued geopolitical technological friction on a global scale, as states and corporations continue to have to choose between the West and China.