US criticism of Chinese anti-terror law: is it justified?

Reuters/Edgar Su
Despite the NSA’s wide involvement in mass data collection, the US government is unhappy about Beijing’s efforts to protect China’s information security with a new counter-terrorism law, Matthew Green of Johns Hopkins University, told RT.

Beijing’s proposed anti-terrorism law would regulate US tech firms operating in the country. It would oblige them to share encryption keys and pass codes with Chinese surveillance authorities. President Obama has criticized it warning that the legislation could hurt the Chinese economy.

RT:Snowden's revelations about the NSA show that the US is also widely involved in mass data collection, demanding backdoors from domestic tech firms. So why is President Obama demanding China stops doing it?

Matthew Green: It’s a bit of a challenging position to take. There have been a lot of arguments lately by US law enforcement that there should be backdoors in US encryption systems. Now China is basically playing off that and asking for the same thing. Of course the US government is very unhappy about that. It is difficult to say why those arguments shouldn’t be just as valid, I’m a little bit confused myself.

RT:These new rules are part of an anti-terror law aimed to protect the nation's information security. Do you think that China has valid reasons for the move?

MG: China has a fairly long history of using its technology systems to essentially listening in on people’s communications and monitor what people are saying online. This would be the next step when you’re monitoring both non-encrypted communications and the encrypted communications that people are increasingly sending. So it would be consistent for China to do that. It is a bit of a break with US policy to ask for that.

RT:China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already responded that it's not going to review the law. What could be the possible consequences if the standoff between the two countries is not resolved?

MG: You end up in a situation where a lot of US products that companies in the US want to sell to China. They might have to change those products in specific ways to accommodate the Chinese requests. It’s not clear that those companies would want to do that, or the US government would be very happy if those changes were made. So that is why there are a lot of concerns about the economic impact of this kind of request.

RT:Some critics in Washington also say these regulations are aimed to support Chinese homegrown businesses in response to the popularity of Western brands in the country. What's your view on this?

MG: It’s definitely one interpretation. It certainly would be much more difficult to sell a product that doesn’t have a Chinese-approved backdoor essentially built into it. It would be much harder to sell that if you were US company and didn’t have that feature. The question then - is it going to be easy for the US firms or European firms to add these features to Chinese products or is it going to be so prohibitive that they don’t sell products in China anymore.

RT:What do you think is the upshot for the consumers in this? They are going to be walking around, perhaps the US and China, with products that are easily crackable, hackable. What’s their takeaway for the average person?

READ MORE: FREAK encryption flaw leaves millions of Apple & Android users exposed

MG: I think that the deployment of very strong encryption has been generally really good for us. This has protected us against a lot of very sophisticated types of hacking. These kinds of hacks are not going away. Encryption is one of the few things we can do to make ourselves safer. In theory it might be possible to build products with backdoors that can’t be hacked. But unfortunately we’re very bad at doing that. The more backdoors you put in something, the more likely it is to be broken by somebody who you don’t want to get into it.

RT:Do you think it’s a good thing that governments have this kind of encryption keys to get at this data if that is necessary? Is there a possibility that they can do it for the right thing?

MG: I don’t dispute that there are valid reason that you want to be able to surveil individuals, we have wiretap laws for good reasons. There is a lot crime that goes on. At the same time I think the government increasingly has a lot of access to our computer systems already. If you look at the Snowden documents you see that the NSA, for example, has a terrific ability to hack into computers. As far as I can see the trend has been for governments to have more access even before we get to adding deliberate backdoors to give them access.

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