Stones, Glass Houses and China
Tonight Representative Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) will open proceedings on the China select committee that he leads, The Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. This special committee has a blank slate upon which to heap U.S. anxieties— real and imagined — about the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party. Scheduled for prime time viewing, I can hear the histrionics already from both sides of the isle.
There are many legitimate geopolitical, economic, and human rights concerns between the two countries, not least now that China has inserted itself with Putin over Ukraine and eyes on its own ambitious for Taiwan. But Congressman Gallagher in a press release has already given us a preview of where he intends the discussion of his committee to go tonight. According to Punchbowl News, “The panel will aim to shine a light on the Chinese Communist Party’s “vision of Orwellian totalitarian control.”
This direction is the wrong one for Congress to take because we live in a glass house. Ever since the USA-Patriot Act and its successor, the Freedom Act, the National Security Administration continues to monitor electric communications almost indiscriminately. That scope includes the communications of people who are not under suspicion of terrorism or any other criminal activity, although it is hard to tell since there is no transparency about this process. In fact, we only know this much because of Edward Snowden disclosures a decade ago. Just last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case on this matter that might have produced a bit more sunlight on national security grounds. In short, since 2001, civil liberties and national security on “wiretapping” are out of balance with no correction in sight.
The Chinese government does monitor its people more than does any other country in the world. Given a long tradition of social control, the CCP is not apologetic about that monitoring. But so do we! The difference is that we do it through our own tradition of being a market driven society. Corporations know more about its users than users probably know about themselves. No laws protecting that information.
Through existing cases we know, for example, that Alphabet’s Google operates large scale behavioral monitoring of individuals at its main data intake points. Through its algorithms, it sorts that information into innumerable, detailed categories for the purposes of targeted and advertising and pricing. Amazon and Facebook and Microsoft manage similarly, and many more companies whose names are less familiar to the public.
Furthermore, no laws prohibit the United States government from purchasing information from data marts holding deeply detailed information about individuals. There are no laws restricting the flow or control or lifespan of the content information held by the private sector. Will Facebook last forever? To whom will it sell your information someday and for what purpose? What will it mean for you, or the viability of your children and grandchildren to make their way in society?
U.S. privacy laws about government administrative processes, government surveillance, or surveillance capitalism have done very little to protect U.S. persons. There is not even a federal data breach notification law! Don’t hold your breath. The billions of dollars that internet company lobbyists pour into the campaign coffers of Congress ensures that none will be forthcoming. Privacy law in the Unites States is moribund. Scholars, academics, and advocates should now turn to information policy to jump start the effort to protect people and their relationship to both government and corporations.
And then there is the matter of cybersecurity. Over the last twenty-five years China is responsible for more nation-state attacks than probably all others combined. CPR has withdrawn national security secrets, intellectual property, and valuable research data, together with loads of personally identifiable information, out of the U.S. Arguably this information is one of the reasons that China has been able to leap-frog in industrial development over what it took the U.S. many decades to accomplish. The United States desperately needs a robust offensive and defensive unified cybersecurity policy as well as taking a leadership role internationally to develop a framework for internet governance.
If Rep. Gallagher is not going to talk about Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan, or trade, then he should talk about cybersecurity and save the stones on Orwell until we have had a chance to reform our own glass house.