According to the U.S. government, the list of known bogeymen working to compromise American national security is long, and getting longer by the day. By my back-of-the-envelope count, we have shoe bombers, underwear bombers, dirty bombers and car bombers. Now, we are being told to fear “implant bombers” who will surgically attach explosives to their innards.
All of these threats are, indeed, scary. But the fear of individual attacks has diverted attention from a more systemic threat of terrorists or foreign governments exploiting our economy’s penchant for job-offshoring. How? By using our corresponding reliance on imports to stitch security-compromising technology into our society’s central IT nervous system.
Sounds farfetched, right? That’s what I thought, until I read a recent article in Fast Company. Covering a little-noticed congressional hearing, the magazine reported that a top Department of Homeland Security official “admitted on the record that electronics sold in the U.S. are being preloaded with spyware, malware, and security-compromising components.”
The process through which this happens is straightforward – and its connection to our current trade policies is obvious. First, an American company or governmental agency orders computer hardware or software from a tech company. Then, because the “free” trade era has incentivized that company to move its production facilities to low-wage countries, much of that order is actually fulfilled at foreign factories where security standards may be lacking.
If this still sounds farfetched, remember that in the offshoring age, one of the major high-tech exporters is China. That is, the country which has been turning computers into stealth weapons of the police state (for proof, Google the terms “Great Firewall” or “Green Dam”).
Sadly, this threat is about way more than new glitches in Angry Birds. At a time when missiles are remotely fired via keystrokes, supply-chain vulnerabilities in high-tech products are a genuine security problem.
What might those vulnerabilities mean in practice? As the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported, they could mean “kill switches” secretly implanted in Pentagon systems that control our arsenal. Or they could mean new back doors that allow Chinese military hackers to again breach Defense Department computer networks, as they did in 2007.
The possibilities are, unfortunately, endless. And yet this threat has been largely ignored for two reasons.
First, the threat is invisible, and therefore doesn’t make for good television. Instead, much of the media promotes stories involving sensational images of naked-body scanners and ignores less telegenic monsters lurking within circuits, algorithms and code.
Second, an examination of supply-chain vulnerabilities would force us to question free-trade theologies that powerful interests don’t want challenged.
For decades, trade-related reporting has mostly focused on jobs. Left almost completely unmentioned are other concerns that free-trade critics have raised – concerns about the environment, human rights and, yes, national security.
The media and political establishment avoid discussing these issues not because they are insignificant, but because the corporations that own the media and buy the politicians also profit off a regulation- and tariff-free trade policy that helps companies cut costs by moving production to low-wage countries. Not surprisingly, then, a discussion of the downsides of those trade policies has become a victim of a form of self-censorship that presents free trade as an exclusively economic (and positive) policy.
Appreciating the power of that self-censorship is simply to behold the reticence surrounding the supply-chain problem. In a money-dominated media and political system that otherwise loves a good scare, the silence suggests free-trade orthodoxy trumps all – even major national security threats.