Is China An AI Security Concern?

Recently, the Interior Department ordered the grounding of its drone fleet that was made in China or contained Chinese parts. This comes on the heels of similar actions taken by the Department of Homeland Security in May and the United States Army in 2017. While political pundits credit the ban to the Trump administration’s policy initiatives against the Asian superpower, many cybersecurity analysts cite legitimate security concerns. As a result, there is a bipartisan bill pending, The American Security Drone Act of 2019, to ban all Federal agencies from using any Chinese-made aerial vehicles. As Senator Richard Blumenthal explains, “Like it or not, drones are our future. Without Congressional action, adversaries like China and Iran will use drone technology as tiny Trojan Horses to spy on our government, our critical infrastructure – even our hospitals and homes. This bill will ensure that we don’t send China and others a gold-plated, flying invitation to steal our intellectual property, undermine our domestic technology, and spy on our communities.”

For years, China has manipulated the internet and mobile technologies to spy on its own citizens and restrict free speech. Akash Kapur of the Wall Street Journal reports that the communist power has deployed a policy of “digital sovereignty” to limit its citizens’ access to the global community which it deems as an existential threat. The “Great Firewall” strategy has been embraced by many other autocratic regimes in creating their own filters, such as North Korea’s Kwangmyong network, Iran’s “Halal-net” and Russia’s Runet. Vladimir Putin recently signed the “sovereign internet bill” that effectively implements a kill switch to block the public internet from Russian users. In response, many American tech companies have willingly complied with requests to limit cyber liberties. Last month Apple removed the “HKMap Live app” used by pro-democracy protestors from its app store at the request of the Chinese government. Tim Cook apologetically reasoned, “It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign. However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our ‌‌App Store‌‌ guidelines barring personal harm.”

In May the conflict between the United States and China came to a head with the  national emergency executive order signed by President Trump banning the government from using “telecommunications equipment that poses a risk to national security.” The initiative was a subtle reference to the accusations of spying by Chinese chip manufacturer Huawei on American and European users. For years, cybersecurity analysts have reported security holes and software errors in Huawei products that potentially enable nefarious activity.  Many have reasoned that these backdoors are deliberate openings for China’s immense security apparatus to spy on Huawei users domestically and aboard. While there is no proof of specific acts, the CIA stated in April it has evidence of financial dealings between the manufacturer and China’s military. According to reports Huawei “has received funding from branches of Beijing’s state security apparatus… American intelligence shown to Britain says that Huawei has taken money from the People’s Liberation Army, China’s National Security Commission and a third branch of the Chinese state intelligence network.” The tension between China and the West has direct regulatory implications on the global innovation of unmanned systems, especially as more autonomous machines connect to the Cloud. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence: “We are going to have to figure out a way in a 5G world that we’re able to manage the risks in a diverse network that includes technology that we can’t trust (e.g., Huawei). You have to presume a dirty network.”

The current state of tech paranoia started two years ago when Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his “China Dream” of world technology dominance by 2030, specifically in the areas of artificial intelligence and robotics. This has led to a spending boom by almost every Chinese agency in acquiring talent, research, and intellectual property. Professor Amy Webb of New York University complains “We are being outspent. We are being out-researched. We are being outpaced. We are being out-staffed. We have failed and are continuing to fail to see China as a militaristic, economic, and diplomatic pacing threat when it comes to AI.” She further suggests that President Xi “sees artificial intelligence as an integral point in shifting geopolitics and geo-economics.” Webb points to the fact that the Asian superpower’s R&D budget is three times the size of the United States. Professor Webb’s sentiment was echoed by Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security who claimed, “the city of Tianjin alone plans to spend $16 billion on AI — and the U.S. government investment still totals several billion and counting. That’s still lower by an order of magnitude.”

The investments made by the Chinese extend to US startups in the form of capital infusions into AI and mechatronic innovations, many that originated in the Defense Department’s grant system. An unclassified report entitled China’s Technology Transfer Strategy by the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx)  states that “Chinese participation in venture-backed startups is at a record level of 10-16% of all venture deals (2015-2017) and has grown quite rapidly in the past seven years” from 6% participation a decade earlier. The study asserted that “the technologies where China is investing are the same ones where U.S. firms are investing and that will be foundational to future innovation: artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, augmented/virtual reality, robotics and blockchain technology.”

The DIUx authors caution the exuberance of founders who receive Chinese cash as “these are some of the same technologies of interest to the Defense Department to build on the technological superiority of the US military today. The rapidity at which dual-use technologies are developed in the commercial sector has a significant impact on the nature of warfare; mastering them ahead of competitors will ensure that we will be able to win the wars of the future.” As Ms. Kania puts it, “[The People’s Liberation Army] is exploring the use of AI to enhance command decision-making capabilities, seeking to achieve decision superiority on the future battlefield.” The solution recommended by the DIUx is to upgrade the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to limit investment through systematic assessments of deals versus on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, having strict export controls on technology transfer and investments to include early-stage technologies could prevent adversaries from acquiring the “Crown Jewels of US Innovation.”

While the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States ended in 1991, the recent federal edicts and boycotts should be seen through the prism of an “AI arms race.” As a Chinese government official affirmed, “By 2030, we shall make artificial intelligence theory, technology, and application at the world’s leading level. [China will] be the major artificial intelligence innovation centre of the world.” Already, an Australian news service released a worldwide rating of country AI capabilities with the United States scoring 33 out of 100 and China rising to number 17. This statistic is compounded by the 2050 forecast that China’s Gross Domestic Product will be $105 trillion or 150% the size of the United States. However, I am reminded that the American success story is not necessarily a numbers game based upon our ability to churn out PhDs and engineers. US inventors should be invigorated by the narratives of Franklin, Edison, and Jobs to paraphrase the immortal words of Robert Barr, ‘the American is most to be feared; he uses more ingenuity in the planning of his projects, and will take greater risks in carrying them out, than any other on earth.’

Reprinted by permission.