Huawei shows the world how the interplay of technology, business and geopolitics will look like in the future, as increasingly more technologies will be developed in Asia, marketed by Asian conglomerates, specifically those from Asian countries with dictatorial regimes. As technology becomes more integrated with people’s lives, it is only normal for people living in the liberal societies of the world to worry about technological innovations coming out of illiberal societies that are being integrated into everyone’s lives.
Take for example your car, or a microwave oven, your fridge, or a juice machine. These are “dumb” devices, as they do their jobs, and then sit idle when not being used at a corner. They do not have the abilities to communicate to the outside world, let alone do any thinking on their own. Now enter “smart” devices like cell phones or cellular networks, or many other internet connected devices yet to come that companies like Huawei are currently making. These devices stay with you all the hours, every hour of the day. You carry them around, they track your movement, they listen to your conversations, and they see what you are doing through the cameras. These devices can then aggregate all this information, think and decide on their own what you are doing, and finally transmit that information to third parties or governments without you ever knowing. The West is showcasing this fear that manufacturers like Huawei will exactly do all the above and do the Chinese government’s bidding with Western users’ data.
To be fair on the Chinese government and Huawei, so far there is little public evidence proving that Huawei’s cell phones or network devices indeed have any such secret capabilities that the Chinese government is currently exploiting.
However, the problem for Huawei is not what its devices are currently doing, the problem rather is about what are the future possibilities given what this company inherently is— a Chinese company, operating out of China, a one-party state, with no limits to what the Chinese government can or cannot do without anyone knowing. And that makes Huawei’s conundrum not particularly a technological one to be solved technologically.
American officials are busy accusing Huawei as a potential national security threat for not only America but for the entire West. The Trump administration is aggressively persuading American and European authorities to block Huawei’s network equipment from entering the future 5G cellular landscape in the Western markets. American authorities also attempted to block several mobile handsets made by the Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE from being used by major cellular networks in the U.S.
American justice department blocked the potential merger of Broadcom, a Chinese mobile chip maker, with QUALCOMM, the American chipmaking giant. The merger was blocked citing national interests by the American authorities based on the fear that such merger will sacrifice American chip making knowledge, particularly those attributable to the emerging 5G technologies to the Chinese. America is also moving aggressively against Huawei by arranging the arrest of one of Huawei’s top officials on technology theft charges.
Americans are targeting the emerging 5G technology space vigorously. 5G will be the next big revolution in technology, which may completely redefine computing and usage of internet connected devices. 5G will be far more integrated to the global human life-experience than any technology ever in the history of mankind. It all may sound pompous and bombastic, so let’s explore what 5G may really do in the future.
With 50 times or more speed than the current 4G, the upcoming 5G technology will be used for devices that will be attached to everything that we currently care about. 5G may drive autonomous cars, driverless taxis, drone taxis, fly low altitude planes, river crafts etc. Almost every electronic device in a house may be connected to this technology, including things that are currently not known to be “smart”. Even the human body may get this technology implanted as network-connected artificial limbs or as lifesaving augmentation or monitoring devices.
5G will be instrumental in the upcoming robotics and automation revolution in manufacturing, warehousing, shipping, and handling. In sum, anyone retaining an edge or a secret hole in devices connected to this technology will have the same edge or secret hole on the overall human experience like no other technology ever had before.
Now one may ask the question, how is this technology any different than what Facebook or Apple or Google are already doing in terms of access to knowledge pertaining to our lives? Are these technology providers, most of which are American, not listening or watching what we do with our lives already? Can an Android phone made by Samsung, a South Korean company or an Apple phone marketed by an American company, yet made in Chinese factories be suspected of doing the same things that Huawei is accused of? Why would one be particularly worried about Chinese technology but not American or South Korean?
The answer to that question is yes since it is true that an Android phone can be doing the same things that a Huawei phone is accused of doing when the Android phone is hacked or programmed maliciously. It is also true that the same 5G technologies that we are worrying about coming from Huawei, will be produced by other manufacturers, get integrated into our lives the same way a Huawei produced technology would, and may even get hacked or maligned. So, technologically a 5G device of the future made by any company can do the same amount good and the same amount of bad, when properly and improperly programmed, just like a Huawei produced technology. However, the concern around Huawei is not necessarily tied to the realities at present, but of possibilities from tomorrow. It is at the end a concern around, domicile i.e., which country’s law and systems a company is governed by. This, in the end, is a debate around governance, not technology, where the liberal vs. illiberal nature of government and society matters just as much as technology.
A manufacturer operating out of a liberal society, with liberal views on privacy and human rights, will face many checks and balances around how much access its governments can have regarding its user data. It is true that liberal governments can also do many bad things, but when they do, there are public discovery mechanisms in those societies which may not prevent all bad things from happening right now, but surely will raise hell when abuses are detected. At the very least, liberal societies produce Edward Snowdens, WikiLeaks, or Bradley Mannings of the world to alert their citizens about what their governments are doing. Illiberal societies may also have well-intended whistle-blowers, but they mostly hide or die premature, hardly ever being able to make their discovery public. And even when serious concerns do get publicized in illiberal societies, there are forces of patriotism, nationalism, and communalism that stymie the impact of problematic discoveries to the larger society.
The concerns around Huawei, a company started in 1987 by a Chinese military person stems from the fear that Huawei, currently the second largest global cell phone maker, being one of the world’s largest supplier of cellular network hardware, may do the Chinese government’s bidding by shipping global user data to China, without anyone knowing. The fear is that the Chinese society will not have mechanisms to facilitate serious discovery of malicious activities by any of its corporates particularly when directed by their government.
The Chinese government practices are not helping Huawei’s case either. With million CC TV cameras monitoring every Chinese citizen’s movement, with perpetual bans on Facebook, YouTube, and Google, the Chinese government has already showed not only precedent of its own targeting of western technologies, but also its inherent desire to monitor and be in control of user data.
It is a hard philosophical problem for Huawei to prove that the same Chinese government that bans Facebook or Google possibly for not allowing access to their user data, will allow Chinese manufacturers like Huawei to protect that same user data.
Totally shutting down Huawei from the global market will be impossible due to its readily available, cheaper technologies that get the job done for global telecom providers. There are already concerns raised in Europe that shutting down Huawei will delay and potentially derail Europe’s rollout of the 5G technology, on top of making the task far more expensive. Therefore, Huawei is expected to survive and even thrive with its 5G technology, if not in the West, then in many parts of the world. But it is obvious that Huawei has already shown the world the limitations of technological development coming out of authoritarian regimes.