The FCC takes key steps toward securing US tech infrastructure

By Shane Tews

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a key step to protect US critical infrastructure, voting unanimously to revoke China Telecom America’s permission to provide services in the US. The FCC found China Telecom “is subject to exploitation, influence, and control by the Chinese government and is highly likely to be forced to comply with Chinese government requests without sufficient legal procedures subject to independent judicial oversight.” It’s not clear how China Telecom maintains security on its networks, how it protects customer data, or how it responds to cyberattacks, as noted in this report on Chinese equipment and services. The FCC noted this concern and raised further the possibility that Chinese government ownership and control of telecoms services “raise[s] significant national security and law enforcement risks by providing opportunities [the company], its parent entities, and the Chinese government to access, store, disrupt, and/or misroute U.S. communications.”

Prior to the China Telecom vote, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr raised national security concerns about Chinese drone maker DJI, whose drones account for more than 50 percent of the US drone market. Drones are used to collect data and high-resolution images in areas that are hard to reach and safer to monitor via drone — for example, during telecom tower and pole attachment inspections. Carr also noted these drones play an important role in performance monitoring for American network companies’ critical infrastructure, meaning they have a front-row view of how components of said infrastructure operate.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, June 24, 2020, via Reuters

Carr’s comments affirm what we have known for some time: China recognized the potential for exploiting the network vulnerabilities of the connected world many years ago. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology supports research and development (R&D) by Chinese companies that enables and promotes civil-military fusion in information and communications technology (ICT). R&D and industrial projects created in close cooperation with the Chinese military around communications architectures enable possible intelligence-sharing and data mining that our own Department of Defense identifies as a potential national security threat. Indeed, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act identified 44 military-affiliated Chinese companies with products in the ICT supply chain. Congress has recognized that these circumstances present serious questions as to how secure a network operation can be if it relies on these companies’ equipment to facilitate critical operations.

Congress has also recognized that Chinese government-controlled entities undermine the interests of the US and pose a threat to American communications networks. In recognition of these threats, Congress in 2019 passed the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, which built on the jurisdiction afforded to the FCC decades ago and assigned it responsibility for mitigating potential harms within our communications systems, including equipment attached to broadband networks. The rules directed the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to publish a “covered list” of communications equipment and services deemed national security risks. Huawei, Hikvision, Hytera, and ZTE are on the list as of 2021, and Carr is now seeking to add DJI. “We do not need an airborne version of Huawei,” Carr stated, referring to DJI.

Understanding the nexus between the FCC’s equipment authorization process and the critical effort to protect US supply chains is more important now that we have a more complete understanding — and concrete examples — of how today’s more sophisticated malicious activities are executed. 

President Joe Biden’s May executive order on cybersecurity urged departments and agencies to do their part in upholding US cybersecurity and protecting critical infrastructure. The FCC has been a stellar role model in this regard; in addition to the China Telecom vote and Carr’s diligence on DJI, the commission recently announced it would start accepting applications from qualified internet service providers for a $1.9 billion reimbursement program to “rip and replace” network equipment deemed unsafe. Adding DJI to the covered list would apply the risk management framework of rip and replace to the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) — as USF dollars cannot be spent on equipment made by an entity on the covered list — and would couple rip and replace with a larger security evaluation of edge items connected to the network’s core.

DJI drones were also added to the Department of Commerce’s “Entity” export blacklist in 2020. The FCC now has a chance to build on this designation and bring conformity to the interagency process as part of a greater, more comprehensive cybersecurity strategy.  Potential threats to the foundations of our network supply chain must be vetted to ensure next-generation infrastructure capabilities are built on a backbone of secure equipment. US policies around digital architecture must also facilitate next-generation innovation that prioritizes security by design. We cannot wait until the next major cyberattack to adopt enforceable regulations that protect critical networks. Dependencies and vulnerabilities are native challenges to the technology ecosystem; we must now enable policies that foster confidence in our technological partnerships.

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