A key group of Trump administration officials now formally opposes an effort involving Google and Facebook to activate an underwater cable network connecting the United States to Hong Kong.
In a new filing staking out opposition to that Hong Kong link, executive branch officials raised concerns it would expose global data flows to the eyes of China’s communist government. They said the cable could be a boon to the Chinese government’s spy services and would bring China a strategic benefit at a time when its global ambitions are rising.
“This cable would change the way U.S. data flows and are stored, around the world,” said Adam Hickey, a senior Justice Department official overseeing telecom issues, in a statement to POLITICO. “It has the potential to establish Hong Kong as the center of gravity for U.S. data connectivity in Asia, offering unprecedented opportunities for collection by the Chinese intelligence services.”
Google, Facebook and other parties first proposed the sprawling underseas network of fiber optic cables known as Pacific Light three years ago, aimed at fast-tracking internet data traffic around the world. The project was aimed at better connecting the U.S. and Asia, with cables passing through the U.S., Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The Federal Communications Commission will ultimately decide whether to allow Pacific Light’s operations, but members of the independent agency frequently defer to the Justice Department and other administration officials on national security matters. The administration considers such concerns as part of an inter-agency body known as “Team Telecom."
Construction is complete on parts of the network, running for thousands of miles under the Pacific Ocean. But some of its operation has been on hold while the U.S. government scrutinizes its national security implications.
Wednesday's filing gives a green light to most of the portions of the network, raising no concerns about legs that connect the U.S. to the Philippines and Taiwan, subject to what it calls "appropriate mitigation" of any risks.
Meanwhile, Facebook and Google appear to have all but conceded that they won’t be able to operationalize the leg linking the U.S. and Hong Kong.
In Wednesday’s filing, the Trump administration raised concerns about the capacity of such a network and the possibility of data getting exposed to China’s government while in transit.
If the project is granted with the Hong Kong connection, “U.S. users may find it difficult to prevent U.S. traffic from transiting Hong Kong on the way to ultimate destinations in other parts of Asia," wrote officials.
Such a cable “landing in Hong Kong would provide additional opportunities for [Chinese government] authorities to collect U.S. communications traffic for further big data analysis,” said the administration recommendations. “By combining personnel data with travel records, health records and credit information, [China’s] intelligence services may have the capability to create in just a few years a database more detailed than any nation has ever possessed about one of its rivals.”
Security concerns around Pacific Light began mounting over the last year as U.S. policymakers weighed some of the Chinese partners involved in the endeavor.
“This project is backed by a Chinese partner, Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co., and would ultimately provide a direct link from China into Hong Kong,” wrote Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) in a letter to the FCC last fall. “We cannot allow this. China has repeatedly shown it cannot be trusted.”
Scott cited human rights violations, asserting China is “breaking their agreement to give Hong Kong autonomy and freedom.” U.S. government officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm about what China’s government could do to communications networks, worrying about potential espionage and theft of technology.
The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Dr. Peng built a surveillance network for Beijing police and that some of its executives were convicted of bribing Chinese government officials.
The administration publicly indicated concerns about the Hong Kong link earlier this year.
In April, the executive branch signed off on the companies operating the Taiwan portion of the network on a temporary six-month basis. But in a filing at the time, the administration warned that “in the current national security environment, there is a significant risk that the grant of a direct cable connection between the United States and Hong Kong would seriously jeopardize the national security and law enforcement interests of the United States.”
The FCC quickly moved to grant that temporary permission, much to Google’s pleasure. At the time, Google noted the effort was about staying ahead of the need for data capacity.
“Our dedicated global network deployment and operations team is continually increasing capacity to meet the needs of our users and that includes our subsea cable system,” said a Google spokesperson then.
The move comes just weeks after Beijing introduced a national security law substantially restricting Hong Kong’s autonomy. The law is set to formalize the footprint of China’s intelligence services in Hong Kong, and human rights groups say it presents an immediate danger to the city’s pro-democracy activists.
The regulators’ proposal was underway before that move, but the filing pointed to the national security law, adding that since 2019, mainland China "has endeavored to undermine Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions and civil liberties" that it previously promised to honor.
The announcement also comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in Hawaii — a trip first reported by POLITICO.
Pompeo has been one of the Trump administration’s most vocal critics of Beijing. But concerns about its ascent and ambitions are widely held throughout the U.S. government, among political appointees and career officials alike. And the global spread of the coronavirus, which first appeared in China, has also fueled anti-China sentiment among the American electorate.
The administration’s recommendations to the FCC say the scale of data flowing through the cables calls for new security considerations. What travels the cables “may include millions of Americans’ sensitive personal data,” said the executive branch.
Silicon Valley giants have emerged as a key player in this space, according to the administration’s assessment.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon “are now the largest investors in new subsea cable routes,” wrote the administration officials, noting that in "2018 alone, Google and Facebook were estimated to have spent $39 billion on capital expenditures on network infrastructure" like these submarine cables.