The recent congressional hearings on big tech underscore the increasing complexity of the digital economy and the risks that we face at home and abroad. When the CEOs of the four largest tech companies were asked whether they could confirm China was stealing from US companies, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook replied that the problem is “well-documented.”
Yet China’s theft of intellectual property (IP) is neither hidden nor recent. China has telegraphed their aims in public documents. For example, according to the IP Commission Report chaired by Dennis Blair and Jon Huntsman in 2013, “China is the world’s largest source of IP theft.” Further, dating back to a congressional testimony in 2001, David Martin, CEO of M-CAM, shared that over 30 percent of the patents issued in the US share one or more claims with other patents. China has exploited these vulnerabilities in the US patent system, leading to the formation of their own companies that bear a striking resemblance to US companies, ranging from Baidu to Alibaba.
It may be easy to see issues of cybersecurity as mere issues of intellectual property or economic viability, but cybersecurity is fundamentally about protecting the rights and dignity of every human being. At the core, every economic transaction and every bit of data affects the daily lives of people all across the world. Cybersecurity seen through this personal lens takes on an added significance and weight because of the value and worth of every human being. And cybersecurity is increasingly necessary as more of our lives are lived and mediated through digital technologies.
According to a nationally representative survey of 2,000 Americans over the age of 18, PwC found that only 25 percent of consumers believe that most companies handle their sensitive personal data responsibility. And yet, 45 percent of respondents also believe that their email or social media will get hacked over the next year. Whether these perceptions are true or false is another issue, but these two statistics highlight an obvious tension for the American consumer: if we expect the government and American businesses to improve their cybersecurity practices, we too have to take the responsibility seriously in our own lives. Responsibility starts at home, and these challenges highlight the centrality of having a vigorous and top-of-the-line posture on cybersecurity.
Fortunately, in 2018, the White House National Security Council released the first cybersecurity strategy since 2013, outlining its intentions and priorities to protect the American people and its way of life. Unfortunately, many other countries have not shared the same ideals. For example, nations like China violate basic human rights such a free expression and religious freedom in order to protect their power or status as government leaders. These totalitarian regimes use their cyber infrastructure as a power grab to control their people and their entire way of life.
China has explicitly shown this to be the case in their relationship between the government and private businesses where the government has complete access, as desired, to the data and information for Chinese citizens but also for anyone around the world utilizing these Chinese technologies. This can be most clearly seen in the recent issues surrounding Huawei and their contracts to build 5G network systems around the world and even in the recent controversies surrounding the viral TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is based in Beijing with known ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The CCP’s relationships with private Chinese companies have left many around the world, including the US, at odds with the Chinese regime that has proven it will stop at nothing to gain a stronger international standing and outsized influence throughout the world. As the United States and other nations seek to combat China economically and technologically, they must also do so through a moral and ethical lens that seeks to stand up for the vulnerable who are caught in the wake of the egregious power grabs by the CCP.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers released the first assessment in its history on the joint impacts of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity in its 2019 Economic Report of the President, documenting the increase in data breaches and its cost on the economy. Large-scale malicious cyberattacks damage the economy by not only costing firms a lot of money and damaging their reputation, but also generating externalities that affect other firms and their consumers.
The cost of any international alliance or partnership with Chinese companies also bears a cost in both the short and long run. In the short run, these alliances may directly fuel the inhumane treatment of Chinese citizens and residents, especially that of religious minorities such as Uighur Muslims and even Christians. In the long run, these deals are likely to cede a country’s digital infrastructure over to the CCP as they engineer backdoors into every dimension of the technology, putting human lives and privacy at risk.
Moreover, given the scale of the digital economy, knowing when and where to look is simply infeasible at scale. That’s exactly what prompted the White House to potentially ban TikTok in the US, citing security concerns with the outsized role of the CCP in the affairs of ByteDance.
As technology continues to advance and more decisions are automated through the use of artificial intelligence, we will need an even greater emphasis on reliable cybersecurity measures at home and abroad. Again, this isn’t simply about economic stability or international standing: it is about the lives of human beings across the world who depend on these tools to thrive.
Scripture speaks of the value of every individual through the concept of the imago Dei, or image of God, which is the grounding for human dignity and rights. For example, Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that we are not our own, but each of us were created by God in image, distinct from the rest of creation. This dignity sets the foundation for human rights, privacy rights, and religious freedom. Moreover, we cannot make true and lasting progress on other social and policy issues until we can recognize each other’s value and worth as fellow image bearers.
The Bible not only gives us a foundation for understanding human uniqueness and dignity, but also a moral framework for new technologies. We are called both to utilize any tool or technology as stewards recognizing these as gifts from God and to weld them in ways that honor God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39). Part of this loving and caring for our neighbor will be safeguarding these technologies from international abuses and even domestic applications when they fail to live up to the ethical framework built upon the dignity of each human being as created in God’s image.
We cannot claim ignorance when malicious actors hijack benign applications or exploit weaknesses in our technologies—the responsibility is on us to stand up for the oppressed, downtrodden, and vulnerable wherever they may live because our God is a God of justice and love.