I recently wrote about Google’s decision to abandon cooperation with the Department of Defense to develop artificial intelligence for use in drone technology. In the latest development of this saga, lawmakers are asking the Silicon Valley behemoth to end what they see as a double standard in Google’s cooperation with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company. Senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, and members of Congress Michael Conaway, Liz Cheney, and Dutch Ruppersberger addressed a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai Wednesday:
We urge you to reconsider Google’s partnership with Huawei, particularly since your company recently refused to renew a key research partnership, Project Maven, with the Department of Defense. This project uses artificial intelligence to improve the accuracy of U.S. military targeting, not least to reduce civilian casualties. While we regret that Google did not want to continue a long and fruitful tradition of collaboration between the military and technology companies, we are even more disappointed that Google apparently is more willing to support the Chinese Communist Party than the U.S. military.
The potential threat posed by Huawei is multifaceted, comprising phone tapping, cyber espionage, and software vulnerabilities that would allow Beijing to shut down the American wireless network. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal assesses these claims: Hidden backdoors embedded in telecom equipment could allow an attacker to take the U.S. cellular network offline for five days — though a specific software vulnerability can only be used once and would likely incur consequences for the attacker once discovered. Device manufacturers could occasionally tap phone calls made on their products without American cell providers noticing. However, cyber espionage, which requires a collaborator in the target organization, would be more difficult, though still possible.
Over the past several months, the U.S. government has taken steps to mitigate these dangers. While large American wireless firms have avoided Huawei equipment (which accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. wireless network) for years, the Federal Communications Commission is considering a rule to block small companies in rural areas from purchasing these products. And in May, the Pentagon banned the sale of Huawei and ZTE phones by retailers at American military bases; Defense Department officials worried they could allow the Chinese government to track U.S. troop movements. And as the letter notes, the 2019 National Defense Appropriation Act includes a provision that prevents U.S. government agencies from purchasing Huawei products.
A Google spokesperson told Reuters that the company’s partnership with Huawei is merely one of several that it has with wireless companies and that the Chinese firm doesn’t receive any special access to user data as part of the arrangement. While promising, this preliminary response doesn’t tell us much about the full scope of Google’s work with Huawei.
Google’s clash with these members of Congress is just the latest episode in the debate about the relationship between technology and American national security. But there’s a key distinction to make with previous incidents: Whereas tech giants have in the past made claims that appeal to the American public’s moral sensibilities, Google can’t take this tack here. In 2016, Apple invoked user privacy protections to resist calls from law enforcement to add a backdoor encryption key to its products. Google justified its new pacifist AI policy and ending Project Maven by declaring itself a champion of peace, international, law and human rights. What can Google argue now?
Pichai’s response has yet to be made, but defending collaboration with Huawei, which is a pressing national-security concern, not to mention in cahoots with a regime that has constructed a more-than-Orwellian police state in one of its provinces, could not possibly be a good look for the company whose parent’s slogan is “do the right thing.”