A member of the US Federal Communications Commission has called for deeper scrutiny of submarine cables linking the US and “adversary countries.”
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks made the statement following a review of the FCC's applicant process.
"We must take a closer look at cables with landing locations in adversary countries," Starks said in comments first reported by Reuters. "This includes the four existing submarine cables connecting the US and China, most of which are partially owned by Chinese state-owned companies… The concerns aren’t just about the landing sites of the cables but who owns and operates them.”
Updating the rules
Starks also suggested the FCC should make certain the submarine cables could not be tampered with by hostile agents.
He added: "I again call attention to a critical aspect of modern communications that is also subject to the Commission’s oversight - the international carriage of traffic between the US and the rest of the world via undersea cables. Because these cables are so important, we must ensure that adversary countries and other hostile actors can’t tamper with, block, or intercept the communications they carry."
Stark's statement comes after the FCC agreed on a new set of rules to “streamline” the process in which Federal agencies assess the national security, law enforcement, foreign policy, or trade policy surrounding applications made by foreign telcos. The report from the FCC formalizes the review process and time frames for such reviews.
Commissioner Ajit Pai revealed in his own statement that the new rules require any applicants to answer questions concerning security and provide evidence to authorities. Applicants also have to certify that they will comply with FCC rules and designate a US citizen or permanent resident as a point of contact.
Back in February, Google and Facebook decided on bypassing China in their plans for the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), after US agencies raised national security concerns. Both companies had applied to the FCC to let them use the Hong Kong portion of the cable, but this was officially dropped back in August. The PLCN will now stop at Taiwan, not Hong Kong.
Starks continued: "That’s why I expressed concerns about the [PLCN], which was proposed by two major American tech firms and a Chinese partner and would have connected landing sites in Los Angeles and Hong Kong."
China Mobile, the Chinese partner mentioned by Starks, was working with Facebook and Google on the PLCN, but in April the FCC barred the company from operating in the US. When China Mobile was banned, the Trump Administration issued an Executive Order calling for a review of foreign involvement in US networks.
The Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector was then founded - and is known by the shorter moniker 'Team Telecom.' The committee receives and processes applications by foreign telcos wishing to provide US services.
The new board is a cross-departmental committee involving the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the head of any other executive department or agency that the President wants present.
Starks said: "Team Telecom shared my concerns, stating that if the project was granted with the Hong Kong connection, 'US customers may soon have little choice but to let their traffic flow through Hong Kong in order to reach final destinations in other parts of Asia.'”
Back in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA tapped submarine cable landing stations coming into the US, and partnered with GCHQ to tap stations in the UK.