It happens all the time these days. People who know nothing about technology make decisions based on what they think is going on. A vast gap has opened up between our leaders’ grasp of complexity and what needs to be done. Take, for example, the recent story about the U.S. Army ripping out Chinese-made surveillance cameras at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
As told by Dan Strumpf in the Wall Street Journal, the Army removed the cameras because of their potential security risk. A base commander read about the maker, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology of Shenzhen, learning that Hikvision is 42% owned by the Chinese government, and decided to take the five cameras out, not because they represented a risk in themselves, but because of perception.
Here’s some context for the story: The cams weren’t looking at anything interesting, and they were on a private network, not even connected to the Internet. The Army wasn’t the only party to get its underwear twisted in a knot over this. The WSJ story cites Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican who represents the district where the base is located, as having expressed “concern” when learning about the foreign cams.
People who don’t understand technology think it’s inexplicable magic. Even people in positions of power to make decisions about what ought and ought not to happen in the technology world may have only the vaguest concept of what they’re talking about.
In the case of the aforementioned cams, it wouldn’t take much to determine what’s what with them. It’s clear that they have lenses and converters to turn analog images into digital data. And that means they have some sort of processing and memory. All this without even looking inside. It’s just how digital cameras work. What’s interesting here is the radios. How do the cams communicate?
Smartphones have multiple radios in them for communicating in all sorts of ways: Bluetooth for pairing with headsets and cars; WiFi for high-volume, short-range communication; cellular for connections over longer distances; and satellite for positioning data used for navigation and location-based services (e.g., Yelp, OpenTable). Each radio is contained in one or more chips, which build up the bill of materials pretty fast. That’s one of the reasons smartphones cost hundreds of dollars. Most commercial cams have one or two radios at most.
Some GoPro cams have satellite radios for marking on a map where the capture is taking place. These are cameras that move. So, knowing where they are is interesting. Pole-mounted cams don’t really need positioning. Some GoPro cams have WiFi for offloading images to a phone, not a bad idea when the cam in question may go flying while in sporting use. Many also have Bluetooth for audio connections.
Aside from looking inside and identifying radio chips, a radio spectrum scanner could determine pretty quickly what frequencies a device is emitting. This is not rocket science.
But the Army was incapable or unwilling to undertake these simple procedures to determine whether or not the Chinese cams posed a risk. Instead, the cams were removed without or despite being examined.
I am appalled at our culture of ignorance and fear. The current political climate in the United States encourages both, and I’m afraid the Chinese aren’t waiting around for us to figure it out.
It is interesting to trace the history of how we got here. As previously noted, the company in question, Hikvision, is based in Shenzhen, a city that typifies China’s economic transformation. When China was courting U.S. manufacturers to invest in Shenzhen starting in 1980, the government touted a cheap (and docile) labor force and threw in tax breaks, infrastructure investment, and the status of a Special Economic Zone on top. As a result, Shenzhen became a nexus of the supply chain. And this nexus developed its own center of gravity: since all the suppliers had depots there, all the manufacturers had to be there, even after labor costs began to rise, and other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia offered lower-wage environments. Because all companies were already there, they all had to be there.
This development was directly related to the hollowing out of the U.S. manufacturing sector, which today famously makes almost nothing.
The base commander in Missouri reacted to inchoate fears about Chinese technology, and in a very general way, he was not wrong. Chinese manufacturers are a threat to the U.S. economy. But not because they are spying on the latrine entryway at Fort Wood. China has become a technologically literate society while we are busy dumbing down — on purpose or through a total misunderstanding of the situation.
It may be that the price of freedom is to go back to making our own stuff. During World War II, the United States was the manufacturer for the free world. Would that it were only so today.