As the battle to set 6G standards begins, UK spy agency warns China seeks to “control the global operating system”

Posted on Apr 27, 2021 by Glyn Moody
Lawrence Lessig

Two years ago, this blog noted that the latest generation of mobile communications, 5G, brought with it undoubted benefits, but also real risks to privacy. Even today, the threat of ubiquitous surveillance from devices linked wirelessly using 5G is little discussed. Instead, governments fret about the slow pace of 5G roll-out. The fear of being left behind by developments in a key area means there is now an accelerating rush to define and exploit 6G, as a new article in Politico explains:

While 5G promises to facilitate a world of near-constant interaction between humans and machines – think driverless cars, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things – 6G would help build a digital world that mirrors real life, allowing computer models to control and predict even more daily events. Industry officials imagine things like internet-connected gloves to control virtual or distant objects and computer-brain interfaces. Another visceral application could be hologram calls, like those in Star Wars (despite its events having taken place “a long time ago”).

Although the Politico piece is a little over-excited about the still vague possibilities opened up by the technology, it is spot-on when it comes to pinpointing the underlying political forces driving the growing interest in 6G. It quotes the US Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, as saying: “5G was the wake up call, the holy crap moment. China is setting the standards for the future.” That’s something that China is quite open about. In an article on the China Daily site – effectively, the in-house news organisation of the Chinese government – Yang Xiaowei, deputy head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, said of his country’s 6G research: “More efforts will also be made to fully release the vitality of data through speeding up the building of systems and standards to accommodate data flow, cross-border data transmission and data security protection.”

Data security also encompasses data control. As a recent blog post about China’s Digital Silk Road explained, one of the key benefits of rolling out huge digital infrastructure projects across Asia is that it gives China far more clout when it comes to setting future Internet standards. In particular, it allows it to push for its own views and values to be embedded in those standards. Privacy News Online wrote about one aspect of this last year. China’s “New IP” proposal features a “shut up command” that would allow a central controller to stop packets from being received or sent by a target New IP address.

The seriousness of the Chinese threat can be judged from a speech given last week by Jeremy Fleming, head of UK’s GCHQ, which carries out the same kind of spying activities as the NSA in the US. Speaking of the technological problems posed by hostile nations, Fleming used a striking simile:

The threat posed by Russia’s activity is like finding a vulnerability on a specific app on your phone – it’s potentially serious, but you can probably use an alternative.  However, the concern is that China’s size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system.

In practice, that means that states like China are early implementors of many of the emerging technologies that are changing the digital environment. They have a competing vision for the future of cyberspace and are playing strongly into the debate around international rules and standards.

Fleming gave two examples that will be familiar to readers of this blog. He warned that proposed standards for “smart cities” could mean that “we will import technology which hardwires data collection in ways that go against the interests and values of open, democratic societies.” Similarly, the increasingly popular digital currencies come with their own risks to privacy: “they could be used to enable significant intrusions into the lives of citizens and companies in those countries, and those they do business with globally.”

In order to combat these threats, Fleming urges like-minded nations to work together to ensure that their values – including the importance of privacy – are enshrined in the next generation of digital standards. This is an aspect that is often overlooked by those seeking to boost data protection. Civil rights organizations tend to think in terms of laws and court rulings. Those are undeniably important, and have produced vital wins. But there is something that can trump traditional legal processes: the software code that runs the world’s hardware. This idea was first articulated by Larry Lessig (pictured above) in his book “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace“, freely available online in an updated version. Lessig explained the idea as follows:

This code, or architecture, sets the terms on which life in cyberspace is experienced. It determines how easy it is to protect privacy, or how easy it is to censor speech. It determines whether access to information is general or whether information is zoned. It affects who sees what, or what is monitored. In a host of ways that one cannot begin to see unless one begins to understand the nature of this code, the code of cyberspace regulates.

Although that is from 2000, it remains true today. Key battles for privacy in the future will take place in apparently humdrum meetings of experts, where the minutiae of future digital standards are agreed. If we want our hard-won privacy to be preserved when we use exciting new technology like 6G, it is important that people stand up for it now, as the next set of rules for the digital world are drawn up.

Featured image by Joi Ito.