Tech can be used by govts to exert control, say experts

Panel members at the Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures, held on Sept 25, 2019. The conference was organised by the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Panel members at the Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures, held on Sept 25, 2019. The conference was organised by the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Technology has brought greater convenience, but governments can also use it to exert political control over many aspects of people's lives, experts said yesterday at a conference on foreign interference tactics and countermeasures.

For developments such as smart cities, hard questions must be asked of where data collected by companies goes to, analyst Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said during a panel discussion on state actors and foreign interference tactics.

Citing China's social credit system, she said: "The data filters into multiple products. So, if you say something political on (Chinese messaging system) WeChat and it affects whether you are seen as an honest person... data is integrated into something that affects other aspects of your life."

The panel was asked why Chinese technology company Huawei seemed to be excluded from international discussions on how to mitigate foreign interference, unlike United States technology giants Facebook and Google.

Dr Hoffman said Chinese companies were constrained from cooperating owing to domestic legislation, including state security laws.

Said Mr Jakub Janda, director of the European Values Centre for Security Policy: "We see what is happening in Canada... the Chinese government will be on your back."

He was referring to the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada last year on fraud charges for misleading bankers about her company's dealings in Iran.

 
 
 

China has since detained two Canadians on espionage charges and halted canola seed and pork imports from Canada.

Pointing out that no normal commercial company would warrant such a reaction from a state government, Mr Janda said: "There are arguments for how Huawei is part of government infrastructure, and we don't want to be dependent on that."

Grace Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2019, with the headline 'Tech can be used by govts to exert control, say experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe