Cybersecurity In-Depth

12 min read

Q&A: How China Is Exporting Tech-Based Authoritarianism Across the World

The US has to adapt its own policies to counter the push, warns former DocuSign CEO and Under Secretary of State Keith Krach.

Despite the block on information flowing from China, stories about the nation's surveillance state have leaked out. From social credit scores and online censorship to electronic billboards that display a citizen's "violations" like jaywalking, surveillance is a part of everyday life for millions of Chinese people.

China is increasingly exporting not only its technology but the authoritarian values that underpin them, and this spread must be contained before it moves through more of the world, says Keith Krach, who served as DocuSign CEO from 2009 to 2019 before becoming Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment in the Trump administration in June 2019.

Krach, who continues to advise the administration of President Joe Biden and leads the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University, was nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on China. He recently spoke with Dark Reading about China's tech-centered authoritarianism, how the country is embedding its values in its exports, and what the US must do with its own tech policies to keep a moral high ground.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Keith Krach headshot as Under Secretary of State, in blue suit and red tie in front of an American flag
Source: Keith Krach

Q: You've dedicated much of your career to fighting against "techno-authoritarianism." How do you define that term? What activities rise to the level of authoritarianism?

Krach: Our rivals are playing the long game in what's a four-dimensional game of military, economic, diplomatic, and cultural chess — and the crossroads, the main battleground, is technology. It all intersects there. So here's what techno-authoritarianism is in the simplest [terms]: It is using technology for bad instead of for good. That could be a surveillance state, dangerous military weapons, or whatever else is done for bad.

You can think of it as sort of the opposite of what we [in the United States] honor as a nation and in the free world at large: respecting things like the rule of law, property of all kinds, nations' sovereignty, human rights, the environment, the press. Those good principles of collaboration, like transparency, reciprocity, accountability — these are things that we honor.

But these are things that China, Russia, the authoritarians don't live by. Instead they [rule by] a power principle: cooperation, coercion, concealment, intimidation, retaliation, retribution. And what [affects us all] is that when someone doesn't play by the rules, it's no longer a free market; it's a fool's market. For example, let's say you're a Silicon Valley CEO, and I'm a Chinese company. I can steal your intellectual property, I don't have to be transparent, I can use slave labor, I can use cheap energy from big coal-fired power plants.

I don't have to obey the law — or to be [more precise], I am the law. How can you possibly compete? I'll beat you every time. So we've got to do something about it.

Q: You've been particularly vocal about techno-authoritarianism in China — to the extent that you can no longer visit or do business there after officials sanctioned you and your family [among other former Trump officials] last year.

Can you provide context on the extent of Chinese surveillance? It's especially present in Xinjiang, where authorities closely track the habits and activities of millions of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group in the city. The US is among several countries to accuse China of committing genocide of the Uyghurs, but surveillance happens all over the country in varying degrees.

Krach: Oh, it's literally George Orwell's 1984. They use technology to intimidate, and there is no privacy anymore. To the extent that in Beijing and a lot of the big cities, they have these big TV-like electronic billboards where they show, for example, if somebody jaywalks crossing the street. They'll flash your picture up there, they'll show how many violations they have, all this kind of personal stuff. They know exactly where people are doing, what people are spending, I mean ... everything. They assign people social credit scores based on their behavior and decide what you can and can't do.

It creates a paranoid society where everybody feels watched, and nobody trusts anyone — because there's also incentives for turning people in for violations. It's just a nasty, nasty way to live.

Q: Chinese authorities, of course, say this surveillance is for the good of the people. They're leveraging technology in all sorts of new projects, including so-called safe cities underpinned by [Chinese telecom] Huawei that harness all kinds of data about people's activities — ostensibly created to be like what we call smart cities here, helping get ambulances to car accidents faster and assisting police in stopping crime. But in actuality, according to groups like the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, they're tracking facial recognition and license plate data, monitoring social media, and stomping out dissent.

Krach: These wired cities are a Trojan horse, the same way that what they're doing in Xinjiang is a proving ground. It's beta testing for all this stuff to roll out in China and to export elsewhere. So Xinjiang is literally a glance into the future.

China is essentially exporting a "dictatorship-in-a-box" when they send their surveillance tools [overseas]. These are tools that the worst of dictators could have only dreamed up. And that's the stuff that enables genocide: the whole surveillance state, literally thought control. I call it China's Great One-Way Firewall, where all the data comes in for their own use. Propaganda goes out, but the truth does not come in. That's why [China's President] Xi [Jinping] is just obsessed with technology. His biggest obsession is the semiconductor business because he knows that's the foundation of everything.

Q: Several countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Ecuador, have adopted Chinese-made surveillance tech. That's in part because China has worked to offer less-funded governments functional and more affordable semiconductors and 5G technologies. When China exports this technology, it seems that in many cases they're exporting the values behind them as well. How can that spread of authoritarianism be stopped?

Krach: I'll take you inside what happened with 5G for an example. You heard about the 5G race all the time a couple of years ago because it looked like China's most important [tech] company Huawei was going to run the table for 5G. They announced 91 5G deals, 47 in Europe. So [in the US government] we're hitting the panic button. 5G controls are much more than cell phones: It's utility grids, Internet of Things, people's personal data, the government's more precious secrets.

Right around February 2020 [when I was Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment in the Trump administration], it seemed US efforts to stop it were failing. So our team got the authority to make a last-ditch effort to defeat their 5G master plan. We combined our team with some of the greatest Foreign Service officers, and it was like magic with that diversity of thought.

What we heard was that [US] government guys going around the world, saying, "Don't buy Huawei." And I go, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." If I'm a CEO, I'd say to my chief of staff, "Hey, let's check out Huawei. They must have something good." So I said, "Why don't we treat the countries, the telcos, like customers? The customer's always right, and to get a customer, you must have a value proposition. Why should they partner with us if they don't get anything out of it?"

In my first 60 bilateral [meetings] I had as under secretary, I asked all these governments, "How's your relationship with China?" They'd say, "Oh, they're a really important trading partner." And then they'd look both ways, as if someone was there, and add, "But we don't trust them." That rang bells in my head. Because trust is the basis of every relationship — personal, business, or otherwise. You buy from people you trust. You partner with people you trust. So we went around to the CEOs of these foreign telcos and said, "Do you want to give your government's and citizens' data to a country that requires any company to turn information over to the Chinese Communist Party? Or do you want to partner with someone you trust?"

We created a digital standard of trust, called the Trust Principle, built on principles like respect for human rights and collaboration. And that was the basis for what we did with the Clean Network, a group of 60 countries that represent two-thirds of the world's global GDP, [along with] 200 telcos and a whole host of companies that were committed to building a 5G system completely free of bad actors and dedicated to fair principles.

It's not an anti-China thing. It's your choice: You can either be locked out of 70% of the market, or you can change the way that you do business. That moral high ground is key. In one move, we took those things that they were using against us and weaponized the very principles that protect our freedoms. In less than a year, those 91 [Huawei] 5G deals dropped by [dozens and dozens].

Keith Krach talks into a microphone in front of a banner for his Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy
Source: Keith Krach

Q. I want to turn the lens inward now because ideas like the Trust Principle and the Clean Network depend on maintaining that moral high ground — and they're built on essentially what we think of as fundamental American ideals — but in reality, the US has participated in surveillance itself. And in the private sector, plenty of US tech companies have had their own issues with data privacy and security, with many of their businesses based on supplying free services and monetizing the data their users provide. Can we have a leg to stand on unless we reform our own practices here in the States?

Krach: It's an interesting and important question. Most people have never heard of this position, but I was the US/EU ombudsman for the data privacy shield. Now what that meant was after the Snowden episode, the Europeans go, "You know, we don't want you guys to do it again." And so they came up with a one-way data privacy shield: From a governance standpoint, if the United States snooped on a European and the Europeans found out about it, then they had a mechanism where they take it to the EU, they'd sort it out, and then it would come directly to me. There was nobody in the executive branch overseeing me on this, to be honest — it was straight with the judicial branch, and those guys were serious. "We're gonna prosecute come hell or high water. Patriotism thrown out the door; you've got to do what's right." And that was an interesting thing.

But the first thing I thought was, why isn't this reciprocal? The No. 1 thing [I said] when I met with the Europeans was, "Why is this a one-way thing, but you guys are shielded?" And then I'd say, "Oh, hey, how's your EU/China data privacy shield going? You have one, right?" And they're like, "Uh ... no. You know, China will be China."

Anyway, from a company standpoint, when people think of US tech companies, they think of the social and search companies like Google and Facebook. They're important companies, sure, but that's a small fraction of it. In my view, the rules of the road have not fully been written yet on data, privacy, security, data flows. It's going to take not only all three branches of our government but also the private sector and international players. If I were [a tech CEO], I would get out in front of this one because you can see it's going to be coming down. Things like Elon Musk buying Twitter probably would be a catalyst for that.

Q: What, then, does the US need to do? It sounds like you think there's a lot more coming pretty soon down the pipe in terms of regulatory and compliance.

Krach: Yeah, yeah. And I think it needs to be clear. But also, US companies were getting robbed blind and locked out of the Chinese market. So there's a squeeze play there, and then [on the government level] the EU was coming up with these regulations that just target US companies, so there's another squeeze play. But here again, it all boils down to one word: trust. You have to be able to trust the people you partner with, and you have to be trusted yourself.

Q: As we look at how technology is evolving in general — Web3, the metaverse — there's so much emerging. Which security issues do you think should be top of mind from a policy standpoint?

Krach: The first one is protect from the enemy. On 60 Minutes, FBI Director [Christopher] Wray talked at length about China's cyber threat and threat to intellectual property. Because their attitude is, if it's out there and we can take it, it's your fault for not protecting it. It's a wholly different value system. 

So the second piece is educating everyone about that, especially at the corporate board level. I just wrote an article for Fortune about how companies need to have their China contingency plan. [Business leaders] need to ask themselves, "What is our policy to make sure that we're trusted by our customers, our shareholders, our suppliers, our partners, all the governments we do business with?"

There's some things the government can help out on. For example, we could install something like the no-bribery law, in which American companies that go overseas and are asked for bribes have the law to fall back on. They can say, "No can do, it's against the law. I'll go to jail, sorry." Why don't we make a law that it's illegal to transfer technology to the Chinese? They have that divide-and-conquer system: "You guys won't give it to me? I'll go to your competitor." So there's some things that we can do along those lines, understanding their values and how we can weaponize ours. But again here, it takes collaboration across government and the private sector. It's critical that we figure it out.