China Seeks Cyberspace Dominion

The Asian nation aspires to become a technology superpower to control communications through a system of instant, inviolable information.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 19 April 2019

Transnational Threats

The Chinese Academy of Sciences shows its quantum simulation lab on May 25, 2016, in Shanghai. (Photo: Cai Yang, AFP)

Quantum Internet promises lightning-fast communications and, in theory, inviolable security. Its operation requires a network of quantum computers able to send and receive vast quantities of information in units called cubits, or quantum bits. In May 2016, U.S. company IBM presented the first quantum computer model, the Q Experience.

In 2017, Beijing started quantum Internet experiments with a network of satellites and computers that could share information worldwide at an unprecedented high speed. According to information on the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS) website, China estimates that quantum communications will encompass many countries by 2030, and seeks to export its information control system to move forward with its technological leadership plans. The goal is to build a government-led instant information transmission system.

“With this technology, China seeks to control global information sharing and become a protagonist worldwide,” Luis Gómez, sociologist and academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “If a superpower, [regardless of] its ideology or policy, dominates information, it can do whatever it wants with other countries,” added Leobardo Hernández, head of the Computer Lab at UNAM’s Aragón Technological Center.

Latin America is part of the Chinese project and must be vigilant about this tool, since it might influence the political, economic, and social arena. “Since there is no leadership in technology development, Latin American countries will be left behind,” Juan Pablo Salazar, a cyber expert at the University of Medellín in Colombia, told Diálogo. “[They will use] the technology other nations developed, such as China, which builds its control power in both cyberspace and physical space for years to come.”

Quantum project

After the launch of IBM’s Q Experience, China started a quantum Internet network from Beijing to Shanghai, with a quantum satellite called Micius. Government institutions, banks, and other companies in the country already use the network to transfer confidential commercial information, said CAS.

According to an article in MIT Technology Review, quantum Internet enables the transfer of huge amounts of data via satellite. If data is intercepted, it can self-destruct so unauthorized parties cannot use the information.

“The approach has limitations. Photons can be absorbed in the atmosphere or by materials in cables, which means they can typically travel for no more than a few tens of kilometers,” the article said. “The Beijing-Shanghai network gets around this problem by having 32 so-called ‘trusted nodes’ at various points along it—similar to repeaters that amplify the signal in an ordinary data cable. At these nodes, keys are decrypted into classical form and then re-encrypted in a fresh new quantum state for their journey to the next waypoint. But this means trusted nodes really shouldn’t be trusted.”

China launches its first quantum satellite, Micius, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on August 16, 2016. (Photo: Jin Liwang, AFP)

“The Chinese government seeks to launch a group of quantum satellites into high orbits to increase coverage,” Hernández said. “It’s naive to think that Internet use will be confidential,” Gómez added. “When China has a certain degree of hegemony, it will have much more access to information.”

Control, censorship, indoctrination

Chinese technological growth focuses on social and citizen control. “That control cannot be considered a democratic standard, but an arbitrary exercise of authority,” Salazar said.

China was the world’s “worst abuser of Internet freedom in 2018,” indicated the New York-based civil organization Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report. The report highlighted how controls intensified after the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress of October 2017, when President Xi Jinping consolidated his leadership for the next five years. Xi plans to create a worldwide cyber superpower with the same authoritarian model of strict information control, but encompassing other countries.

Beijing hasn’t stopped cyber intrusions in commercial networks of foreign companies in China. They are even forced to transfer their technological knowledge to local companies in exchange for market access, according to the 2017 annual survey the US-China Business Council, based in Washington, D.C, conducted. “Quantum Internet might lead to more censorship or the loss of freedoms, with greater state control,” said Salazar.

“Quantum Internet will be an additional social control tool that the Asian country will use. China will not only offer the new technology to Latin American countries, but will also offer its social control method to violate and restrain liberties,” Jorge Serrano, an independent analyst on strategic intelligence and a scholar at the Center for Higher Studies in Peru, told Diálogo. “This can be a threat if China is the main actor looking to widen its industrial, political, and security espionage capabilities worldwide.”

Clear rules

Gómez and Salazar said that if China builds a quantum Internet infrastructure, Latin American countries and nations worldwide must adopt clear rules limiting use of the technology to charitable activities. Technological progress should not be used for indoctrination, or as a war weapon in any scenario.

Abuse of quantum technologies by criminal groups might also increase cybercrime. “[It’s] a scenario where governments and companies would face an unprecedented risk, since cyberspace is the new battlefield for crime and terrorism. Latin America would be no exception,” Salazar said. “Chinese quantum Internet might have an influence in the Asian country, but not a strong one in the West. Luckily, Canada, the United States, France, and England are working on this technology,” Gómez concluded.

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