Amidst an ever-growing public health crisis, Chinese technology companies are fighting to expand their influence in previously inaccessible or inhospitable markets. In this short report, The Intelligence Ledger delivers the findings of an investigation into Chinese biometric companies, their quest for growth, and the potential security threat they pose to the United States of America as the Second Cold War begins.
The COVID-19 pandemic will become one of the largest, deadliest, and most impactful events of the 21st century. Thus far, thousands of lives have been taken and hundreds of thousands infected by a ruthless and unforgiving virus. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars have been lost as a result of economic stagnation, and millions of workers now find themselves unemployed. By the time a vaccine or anti-viral treatment is found, misery and pain will have entered the homes of hundreds of millions of innocent people.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, prior to be murdered in Dallas, recognized that opportunity will present itself at inopportune moments, "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity." True to his statement, Chinese technology companies have begun an aggressive marketing campaign for thermal imaging glasses with biometric features in the United States, specifically targeting businesses, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies. The conglomerates, mainly Rokid, Hikvision, SenseTime, Telpo, Megvii, and Hytera, have touted their glasses versatility, effectiveness, and success in detecting individuals with COVID-19 in large crowds. Potential users, however, should be aware that serious concerns exist in regards to China's abuse of user data, and as such, may be extremely insecure.
Among all the companies selling the new technology, Rokid has proven the most successful. Its T1 thermal glasses can take the temperatures of up to 200 people in less than two minutes in spite of enhanced social distancing measures. The glasses come equipped with a camera, augmented reality voice control capabilities, biometric facial recognition, and data management technology. According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese government has started to develop a strong reliance on this specific platform, with large quantities of the model being supplied to security forces in Hangzhou, Huzhou, and Quzhou.
When contacted to comment Rokid, stated that data collected from the R1 glasses does not go to the cloud, "Regarding this module…we do not take any data to the cloud. For customers, privacy is very important to them. The data measurement is stored locally." However, Rokid failed to mention that a user can decide to share data with the company in the case of an emergency situation, and as such, the needed hardware and software comes installed. It would not be unthinkable that this platform can be manipulated to transmit data without permission of the user.
The Chinese technology sector has a poor record of data privacy. The Untied States has recently stepped up their opposition to Chinese storage of America data. Perhaps the largest case of this hawkishness has been with TikTok, a Chinese social networking app that has become popular worldwide among Generation Z and millennials. Since its launch in 2018, nearly 1.5 billion people have joined its community. The Trump administration has taken a keen interest in the application, with multiple agencies, organizations, and military branches taking steps to block employee use of TikTok.
The crux of the US government's concern stems from the fact Chinese law requires any company operating within China must do their most to help the security state. In 2014, China instituted the Counter-Espionage Law, which states, "when the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant organizations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse."
China's 2017 National Intelligence Law went further, requiring, "any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law."
At the end of the day, America must ask itself if it trusts its data with an authoritarian government that is culpable in the spread of COVID-19, responsible for the suppression of pro-democracy protestors, and outwardly hostile towards the United States. Claims that data collected by enterprises such as Rokid would not be used for Chinese intelligence collection operations in the case of increased hostility with the People's Republic are simply false. There is no legal or logical way Chinese companies can resist an order from the central government or Chinese Communist Party to hand over their customers data.
While glasses such as the T1 may be a great tool to combat COVID-19, federal policymakers and regulators would be wise to remember it isn't a purely positive and issue free platform for the United States.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.