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Fibre Watch: To Sydney, via Beijing?

Is it xenophobia, or a legitimate concern over potential spying by a superpower?


Concerns have been raised over the security implications of Chinese interests backing a planned second trans-Tasman submarine fibre cable.


Fears that Chinese telecommunications companies are some kind of front for cybercrime and espionage have been swirling around for several years.


One of the most high-profile examples that has fuelled the flames of concern recently was a Chinese-sourced hacking attack on hundreds of US and South Korean officials.


The US government has taken a firm stance, declaring cyber-attacks will be treated as 'acts of war' and committing significant resources to countering hacking threats.


We’ve also seen evidence of the New Zealand government ramping up its efforts against cyber threats, most recently with last month’s opening of the National Cyber Security Centre.


One line of thought is that New Zealanders are being overly paranoid if they worry about cyber-attacks and telco-based espionage because our isolated position in a quiet corner of the world makes us a pretty uninteresting target for such crimes and spying.


However, this argument ignores the fact that in a broadband-connected world, geographic isolation has less significance than it once did.


It was interesting to see the New Zealand and Australian landing points for our existing broadband link with the rest of the world – the Southern Cross Cable – being labelled as pieces of 'critical infrastructure' by the US government.
This emerged through one of the leaked diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks last year.


The communiqué in question highlighted the significance of a number of undersea fibre cable landing points around the globe, reinforcing the notion that international data exchange and communication is a crucial activity.


But just because telecommunication infrastructure is vital, does that mean we should keep Chinese interests out of it?


For a start, to do so would be to deprive ourselves of a major source of funding for infrastructure builds. In the current economic climate it seems that Chinese money is the only source of funding available for some of these projects.


Secondly, it is generally accepted that you don’t need to be the architect or builder of a fibre cable to hack into it.


There is nothing wrong with being vigilant when it comes to cyber-security. We just need to ensure vigilance doesn’t cross over into paranoia when an opportunity to enhance our international connectivity presents itself.


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