Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published a bombshell investigation detailing how China used tiny microchips to infiltrate U.S. technology companies. The investigation, which was reported primarily through anonymous sources, shocked the tech world, and behemoth companies like Amazon and Apple issued statements vehemently denying the report’s details. Bloomberg, a respected business publication, firmly stood behind its reporting.
Since most of the report’s details stem from information by top-level government officials and knowledgeable company sources, it’s a long shot for the public to ever get at the truth of the story. What’s more important than the truth, in this instance, is the sheer technological possibility of state-supported hacking. The U.S. government must recognize this threat, and actively work to address it.
The report alleges that China infiltrated American companies’ hardware to gain access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks. In addition to 30 technology companies, the infiltration affected a major U.S. bank and government contractors.
The Bloomberg story should bring the nation’s attention toward the United States’ technological vulnerability, not only in digital platforms and voting machines, but also as a manufacturer of electronic goods. Companies like Apple and Google have sought to outsource product manufacturing to China at a cheaper price, and they’re not alone. An NPR report described how the U.S. supply chain is inextricably tied to China, especially when it comes to technological manufacturing.
China makes 75 percent of the world’s mobile phones and 90 percent of its private computers, the report said. In a digital age when cybersecurity is essentially intertwined with national security, the allegations the story raises are quite frightening. While the Bloomberg story reveals a concentrated effort to target major U.S. corporations, current U.S.-China relations and China’s demonstrated history of cyber-espionage campaigns suggest that the country is more than capable of directing its efforts toward government agencies and elections.
We need to look no further than the United States’ demonstrated failure in cybersecurity matters during the 2016 election. The Russian-led hacking efforts into U.S. elections is emblematic of America’s passive mindset and approach with emerging technology. In July, Microsoft revealed that it blocked hacking attempts against three congressional candidates, the first example of cyberinteference in the midterm elections, Politico reported. Other countries have succeeded in impacting our elections through cyberinterference once, and as the summer’s hacking attempts show, they are attempting to do it again.
Government and election security officials are constantly voicing concerns about voting security in the midterms, yet states are slow to utilize federal funds to invest in upgraded voting technology before November. While some states prefer taking money from their own budgets, it’s worth noting that 22 states have no plans to replace their machines before the midterms.
The U.S. also has no centralized agency that specifically deals with cybersecurity threats. Voting security and other technological responsibilities have been stretched across the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and several other internal cyber units, according to TechCrunch. Our technological legislation and distribution of cyber knowledge are weak compared to nation-states like China and Russia.
Top lawmakers in positions to make cybersecurity policy changes have struggled to demonstrate their technological literacy. At Senate hearings in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified about the company’s abuse of data. Some senators raised questionable concerns about Facebook as a platform. If Congress can’t understand how the world’s largest social media platform operates, the future and longevity of our country’s digital infrastructure may be at risk.
In late September, President Donald Trump hinted at China’s meddling in the midterm elections — an alarming accusation, considering the ongoing trade war between the two countries. Several other top intelligence officials have also placed China on a list of countries with the capability to digitally direct operations against the United States. The nation is only a few weeks away from the midterm elections. It’s crucial for state and federal governments to recognize our country’s digital vulnerability and work to resolve them in coming years. If the past two years are any indication, countries have effectively mounted election meddling and cyberinterference campaigns toward the country. And this time, vigilance might not be enough.
Terry Nguyen is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Wednesday.