Caught in the Crosshairs: Geopolitics, Espionage and Cybersecurity

We need to think about an active adversary,” said Cisco Systems CEO Chuck Robbins during a recent Bloomberg interview. “The problem is that the adversary only needs to be right once. We need to be right all the time.”[i] In 2018, in the United States, Cisco blocked seven trillion cyberthreats, over 20 billion per day, on behalf of customers. That number is intimidating in its vastness and, as Robbins said, it only takes one time for a major breach to occur. Last year, Cisco showed 8% growth in revenue. This is because the solutions and infrastructure that they offer are “the digital nervous system for the economy.” Robbins goes on to say that “companies today realize that technology is actually defining their future strategies and so technology is not an optional cost centre anymore. It really is at the heart of what every entity is doing around the world.” You must protect your heart.

Canadian businesses, broadly, have adopted digital technologies into their business models. According to IDC Canada, in 2018 Canadian digital transformation technologies and services spending was to top $16 billion.[ii] Tony Olvet, Group Vice President of Research at IDC Canada predicts that “2019 will be the year of near term execution and long term strategic planning for many Canadian organizations. IT and business leaders will need to strike a balance between delivering digital projects, with the development of a vision for how artificial intelligence, 5G wireless and other new technology developments will impact the future of work.”[iii] As corporations and government agencies form these long-range plans, it is paramount that they turn to a trusted cybersecurity solutions provider like ISA. In fact, in 2019, the number one threat that CEO’s in North America worry about are cyber threats.[iv] 

A security solutions provider understands the changing and uncertain cyber landscape, they can find infrastructure vulnerabilities and can adapt and grow security measures as your company adapts and grows with technology. IDC Canada has predicted that by 2021, security services spending will transcend spending on security products. Because paying security services to have experts implement security controls will help you get the most out of your technology investments and cybersecurity program. It gives your company access to skilled technical experts who have up-to-the-minute knowledge and an awareness of current threats and how to defend against them. Right now, the biggest concern that Robbins is hearing from customers is the uncertainty and risk surrounding geopolitical dynamics, especially between North America and China, and how that affects their own cybersecurity as they move towards 5G integration. 

The politics of 5G

The 5G, or fifth generation, mobile network buildout will be crucial to every country’s future. The next generation of wireless networking will mean much faster connections and allow for the massive data capacity that new applications require. This is a growing need as more devices connect to the Internet of Things and technology like virtual reality continue to advance. Between 2019 and 2021, the IDC predicts that Canadian wireless carriers will invest billions of dollars in 5G to enable innovative business models and experiences. That’s only in Canada. 5G means big business on a global scale. The much talked about Chinese company Huawei is one of the leading candidates to assist telecommunication firms with the 5G network build. Huawei already backs much of the telephone and internet network in Canada, being used by both Rogers and Bell. [v] Huawei’s push to help build the Canadian 5G network has raised many security concerns. The UK, New Zealand, Australia, and the US all share similar unease at the thought of their involvement. 

One of the concerns is that in China’s National Intelligence Law it says that Chinese citizens and organizations must support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work. Huawei is a company founded by a former officer of the People’s Liberation Army. As well, Huawei is linked to the upper echelons of the People’s Republic of China.[vi] If they are involved in the development and support of the 5G network that would raise flags about the security of Canadian data. Some experts believe that a wide range of digital data could be collected from Canadian customer’s usage of their electronic devices. Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei from involvement in their 5G development. The US has banned the use of Huawei products in all government agency 5G network development.  

This is because of alleged high-tech espionage being done on behalf of China by Huawei. There are also reports that Huawei may have broken U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran. Huawei’s exact transgressions aren’t all that clear. It may be that they are too involved in the strategic sector of the People’s Republic of China. It might just be the fear that Huawei’s 5G telecommunications equipment may be used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, or used in the future to cripple energy and transportation infrastructure. A hacking prediction that could lead to a national catastrophe if realized.

Canada’s stuck in the middle

Canada arrested the founder of Huawei’s daughter, chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, in December of 2018. Canada acted on the request of the United States, where Meng is wanted for charges of fraud and violating international sanctions against Iran. The arrest got Beijing’s back up and, in response, Chinese officials arrested two Canadians working there on vague allegations of endangering national security. A third Canadian citizen, in prison for drug smuggling, had his sentence increased from imprisonment to the death penalty. But, there’s been speculation that the charges against Meng could’ve been trumped up as part of a strategy in the 5G network implementation war that’s building. Canada now seems to be stuck between a rock, China, and a hard place, the US, in this diplomatic feud. 

Although pressure has come from the US to ban Huawei, Canada, always the peace-keeper, has said that it will make the 5G decisions based on a review of the risks and benefits specific to Canada. If we let Huawei in, are we prepared to protect our nation against any cyber-espionage that could occur as a result? When asked whether Canada is equipped to deal with cyberterrorism threats, Justin Trudeau said that “there’s much more to do not just from a government perspective but from an empowering of citizens perspective, a greater knowledge of businesses and organizations on how to keep themselves safe in terms of cybersecurity. We’re constantly iterating, the challenges themselves are constantly iterating as well.”[vii]

The technology iron curtain drawn between the US and China highlights the uncertainty and fear that rapid technology changes bring. Fear is threatening to divide the global community. The feud between North America and China highlights the conflict between the globalization of the digital economy and the growing nationalism of politics. Both governments and corporations are clamouring to keep up with technological advances to stay competitive in a global economy and protect their own data. As Chuck Robbins observed, “governments around the world don’t have the expertise, necessarily, inside the government to even be able to regulate or determine what they should do.”[viii] That’s why so many corporations and government agencies are talking to ISA about cybersecurity solutions.

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