The Berlin Wall May Be History, but the Surveillance State Still Threatens Us

The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was one of the most dramatic and important political events in my lifetime. Like millions of others around the world, I remember watching the events unfold on television, mesmerized by the pictures that none of us thought we would ever see. The Cold War seemed to end almost overnight, ending the oppression that imprisoned the people of East Germany and Eastern Europe for decades.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987 and urged Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” Reagan knew he had to stand up to the Soviets. At the same time, he sought to reach citizens living behind the Iron Curtain by promoting Western values, rule of law, liberty and democracy.

The Berlin Wall was torn down thirty years ago, but the challenges symbolized by the Wall – the struggle between liberty and oppression – still exist.

The surveillance state China is building today is more powerful and repressive than the Soviet Union at the height of its power. China is using technology as one of its tools to persecute Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims. China aims to use technology to gain control over crucial infrastructure throughout the world, including within allied European countries.

As the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark, I am often asked if the United States is overreacting to the security threats posed by Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese companies’ 5G technology. You might even be reading this article on a Huawei phone and wondering to yourself why we’re making such a big deal about 5G.

Undoubtedly, 5G promises to be a revolutionary – not evolutionary – advancement that will have vast implications, particularly in forward-thinking societies like Denmark, ranging from artificial intelligence, to manufacturing, to public services, such as electricity and transportation. Disruptions to critical applications empowered by 5G could be life-threatening. The stakes could not be higher.

We all need to be able to trust that 5G equipment and software companies will not threaten our national security, privacy, intellectual property, or human rights. Let me be clear: China cannot be trusted on a single one of these fronts. Under Chinese law, companies must comply with demands from the Chinese Communist Party. In a 5G future, that means Huawei and ZTE networks would be forced to turn over to the PRC’s national intelligence authorities what you say and do online images of your face or fingerprints, where you drive your car, what you discuss with your doctor, and your activities using the Internet of Things—all without your knowledge or consent.

This is not something we as collective democratic societies should allow.

Using trusted alternatives to Chinese telecoms is the only way to ensure that Danish citizens’ data will be kept secure. The PRC gathers and exploits data on a shocking scale, and uses that information to invade their citizens’ privacy. Chinese authorities are relying on cameras, facial recognition, and “gait recognition” video surveillance to intimidate political dissidents and religious groups. Just look at China’s appalling treatment of its Uighur minority to see what the Chinese government does with its own citizens’ data.

Huawei builds networks for repressive regimes, like Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, and enables these oppressive governments to abuse and control their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party is systematically using Huawei and other national champions to dominate global technology sectors, standards, critical infrastructure, and information and communications networks. Given all these facts, is Huawei the kind of company Danes are willing to buy from and support?

A safe 5G future where everything is connected will require a surplus of trust. Unfortunately, trust is not an abundant commodity when it comes to Chinese technology. I applaud Denmark’s major telecommunication companies’ respective decisions to utilize non-Chinese technology for 5G, and I encourage the Faroe Islands and Greenland to take into account the factors I’ve described when making their own decisions.

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, let us remember the democratic freedoms East Germans experienced for the first time 30 years ago. Let us also remember we must continue to fight for and defend the values that are the foundation of our Western democracies.