China's national security minister rates fake news among most pressing cyber threats

He's also worried about alliances that freeze out Chinese tech

Chinese minister for national security Chen Yixin has penned an article rating the digital risks his country faces and rated network security incidents as the most realistic source of harm to the Chinternet – both in terms of attacks and the dissemination of fake news.

The article appeared in China Cyberspace, the official organ of regulator the Cyberspace Administration of China. The magazine is an important and influential publication – in addition to ministerial missives, last year it published a cover story written by Elon Musk.

The new article reiterates Xi Jinping's thoughts on network and cyber power, which boil down to a recognition of the internet's central role in almost all aspects of modern life and the subsequent need for security and governance.

In China governance includes restrictions on free speech and detection and deletion of information felt to be incorrect. Or as minister Chen put it, after machine translation: "The internet has increasingly become the source, conductor, and amplifier of various risks. A small incident can become a whirlpool of public opinion. Some rumors can easily turn a 'storm in a teacup' into a 'tornado' in real society."

That comment came in a section of his article titled "The most realistic harm is the frequent occurrence of network security incidents" that also mentions data leaks, and material related to terrorism spread on "diverse" channels by "covert" means.

Chen's article rates "increasingly fierce competition between great powers in cyberspace" as the most significant competitive threat China faces in the digital domain. He accused rivals of using "so-called 'risk removal' as an excuse and using ideology as a standard to create technology 'small circles' such as 'Clean Network' and 'Chip Alliance,' and even expanded the use of policy tools such as export controls, security reviews, and restricted exchanges."

The minister argues such initiatives are motivated by other nations' desire to cement technology leadership positions and build monopolies, rather than genuine concerns.

He also wrote that China's most prominent technological shortcoming is that core technologies are controlled by other nations. "In recent years, my country's cyberspace industry has developed vigorously and made historic achievements. However, the original innovation capability is not strong, and the situation that core technologies in key areas are controlled by others has not changed, especially in high-end chips, basic protocols, advanced artificial intelligence, communication service equipment, etc," he wrote, before conceding that Chinese techs can't match the quality offshore providers have achieved.

One thing Chen and other nations agree on is that attacks on core infrastructure represent dire risk.

"Networks operating in the fields of finance, energy, electricity, communications, and transportation have become key targets of overseas cyber attacks. Once these facilities are invaded, controlled, tampered with, or destroyed, it may lead to serious consequences such as transportation interruption, financial chaos, and power paralysis," he wrote.

The minister also claimed "cyber attacks and theft of secrets against our party and government agencies, national defense industry, scientific research institutes and other units have increasingly become organized, large-scale, and continuous, posing serious risks of leakage and even threatening the safety and security of core personnel."

Such sentiments could come from almost any of the world's national security ministers.

Minister Chen's view of the future may also be familiar – he expressed concern that quantum computing will break existing security, while AI will bring massive change including easier production of "political rumors and harmful information." He's also worried that blockchains could be used to propagate that fake news.

Satellites are also in his head, as a threat to China's network defences – a likely reference to satellite internet services offering a method for Chinese netizens to evade the great firewall.

The best ways for China to respond to those threats, he wrote, is to follow the party line, achieve breakthroughs in fields like quantum computing, and just get better at IT governance and security.

Universities must improve and China needs "a reliable and controllable security barrier."

The article appeared in the same week that China's Academy of Engineering called for more work on quantum computing, AI, and infosec. The week has also seen president Xi Jinping call for China to accelerate its innovations.

Clearly, the Middle Kingdom wants to do better in the digital realm, at both innovation and restricting its citizens' online activities. Indeed, the party sees better restrictions on free speech as a form of innovation. ®

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