Justice Department Opposes Google, Facebook Cable Link to Hong Kong
By John Hendel and Betsy Woodruff Swan, Politico
June 17, 2020
A key group of Trump administration officials now formally opposes an effort involving Google and Facebook to activate an underwater cable network connecting the United States to Hong Kong.
In a new filing staking out opposition to that Hong Kong link, executive branch officials raised concerns it would expose global data flows to the eyes of China’s communist government. They said the cable could be a boon to the Chinese government’s spy services and would bring China a strategic benefit at a time when its global ambitions are rising.
“This cable would change the way U.S. data flows and are stored, around the world,” said Adam Hickey, a senior Justice Department official overseeing telecom issues, in a statement to POLITICO. “It has the potential to establish Hong Kong as the center of gravity for U.S. data connectivity in Asia, offering unprecedented opportunities for collection by the Chinese intelligence services.”
Google, Facebook and other parties first proposed the sprawling underseas network of fiber optic cables known as Pacific Light three years ago, aimed at fast-tracking internet data traffic around the world. The project was aimed at better connecting the U.S. and Asia, with cables passing through the U.S., Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The Federal Communications Commission will ultimately decide whether to allow Pacific Light’s operations, but members of the independent agency frequently defer to the Justice Department and other administration officials on national security matters. The administration considers such concerns as part of an inter-agency body known as “Team Telecom.”
Construction is complete on parts of the network, running for thousands of miles under the Pacific Ocean. But some of its operation has been on hold while the U.S. government scrutinizes its national security implications.
Wednesday’s filing gives a green light to most of the portions of the network, raising no concerns about legs that connect the U.S. to the Philippines and Taiwan, subject to what it calls “appropriate mitigation” of any risks.
Meanwhile, Facebook and Google appear to have all but conceded that they won’t be able to operationalize the leg linking the U.S. and Hong Kong.
In Wednesday’s filing, the Trump administration raised concerns about the capacity of such a network and the possibility of data getting exposed to China’s government while in transit.