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Avast Blog_ViewPoints: Geopolitical cybersecurity comes home
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There will be more and more investigations into technology originating in undemocratic states

The need for greater oversight and accountability in our rapidly expanding digital world has acquired a relatively new angle thanks to globalization and geopolitics. In the rush to create market efficiencies, we usually don’t know or care where our oil and natural gas come from, where our food is grown, or where our phones are made—as long as the price is right. The benefits of this have been tremendous, with the latest smartphones, these hand-held supercomputers that only hit center stage in 2007, accessible to all.

One side-effect of this trend is only coming to the fore today. You cannot look around you today without seeing countless items that are “Made in China,” especially electronics. Inexpensive Chinese manufacturing at massive scale—and low-cost global shipping powered by cheap oil—has been a boon for companies around the world. It has also put an authoritarian Chinese regime with no transparency regarding separation between its government and its companies in the position to influence key elements of our digital world.

Rising global tensions are also raising Western scrutiny of Chinese companies. The example currently making big news is the giant multinational Huawei, China’s largest smartphone maker and the world’s third-largest, after Apple and Samsung. Huawei is facing allegations of spying, intellectual property theft, and dumping below-cost phones on the market with the government’s backing. Beyond phones, the UK government is dealing with a scandal over whether Huawei should be allowed to build state-of-the art 5G networks in the country due to the potential security risks. A recent article called security holes in Huawei routers “a smoking gun.”

American tech giants like Facebook watch what we do online as a part of their advertising business model. But they are also visibly separated from the government and are often in conflict with it over regulations. As I’ve often said, what matters is what happens to the people whose data is collected. Google’s data collection isn’t the same as data collection by the “KGBs” of the world that use that data to intimidate, control, and repress.

Perhaps the average consumer in the West doesn’t care what information their Chinese phone is collecting. It won’t be used to oppress them the way China uses its macabre “personal credit score” and tech like facial recognition to make its totalitarian state more efficient. Governments cannot be so casual about security, and there will be more and more investigations into technology originating in undemocratic states. If these companies hope to quell these suspicions, they must work very hard to build a record level of transparency into their products and engage oversight of their activities with trusted third-party companies and agencies that can hold them accountable.

Otherwise, the potential consequences cannot be ignored. An exploit in a router made in Taiwan isn’t the same as in one built in China. If a company that makes voting machines used in American elections is bought by a German or Brazilian multinational, it’s not the same as if it’s bought by one with connections to a Russian oligarch. The dangers are multiplied by the complex web of international finance and the ease with which money is moved and ownership obscured.

The last thing users and companies need is another layer of security concerns to worry about. iPhones are made in China, is there a risk? Cars with dangerous flaws are recalled and the manufacturers punished, but such oversight and punitive actions are rare for poor security practices or tech devices despite a much inferior safety record. As concerned as I am about foreign espionage, the dismal state of tech security in general makes it very hard to fight. A security flaw in a Chinese device is hardly a smoking gun when similar exploits are found in practically every similar device on the market, regardless of origin. Companies pass these headaches to their customers and consumers. They rely on the next exploit or hack distracting the public from the last one. Outrage is a healthy response, and one of the few ways consumers have to press for change.  
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