The Hot CCP Spy War
Smart appliances are a threat to American national security.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently sounded the alarm on China, warning that the Communist nation poses a significant threat to U.S. national security. She’s right. And of all the security threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the country’s unrelenting harvesting of data is perhaps the biggest. Which brings us to Haier, a Chinese multinational home appliances and consumer electronics company that is heavily invested in the U.S. market.
Headquartered in Qingdao, Shandong, Haier Group Corporation entered the U.S. market in 1999. Initially focused on manufacturing and distributing two rather niche products—compact refrigerators and electric wine cellars—as profits grew, so did Haier’s vision for the future. In June 2016, Haier made headlines when it purchased GE Appliances, an American home appliance manufacturer based in Louisville, Kentucky, for $5.4 billion. That was the point when Haier went from being a Chinese company operating in the U.S. to a dangerous Chinese company operating in the U.S.
According to Aynne Kokas in her brilliant new book, Trafficking Data, Haier’s acquisition of GE Appliances, which now makes it “the world’s largest consumer appliance company,” “specifically targeted growth through the IoT.” For the uninitiated, IoT refers to the Internet of Things, a network of physical objects or “things” that communicate with each other via embedded sensors and software. IoT is fast becoming the central nervous system of our tech-fueled world. This year alone, IoT devices have generated global revenues of $19.5 billion, representing a 13 percent increase from 2021. In the race to connect every device to every other device, China is leading the way.
IoT devices pose a genuine threat to users’ safety. That’s because they create numerous bridges between insecure networks and insecure devices, allowing hackers to gain control of people’s digital devices and wreak havoc. Devices can easily be hijacked, allowing bad actors to eavesdrop on unsuspecting users.
Over the past few years Haier has created an entire line of IoT, or “smart,” appliances including smart ovens, smart microwaves, and smart refrigerators. As I have discussed elsewhere, in the world of tech, “smart” is simply a synonym for surveillance. Smart devices connect to various apps and other devices through a wireless connection, which makes them ripe for hacking. Moreover, these devices collect and create copious amounts of data which begs the question, Where is this data stored?
As Kokas notes, “Haier has foregrounded the development of its new proprietary platform for its IoT, the U+ Connect platform, which collects data through all connected GE Appliances and Haier products.” Worryingly, she writes that this platform leverages a Chinese firm that’s “subject to the data localization requirements of China’s 2017 Cybersecurity Law.”
The bad news doesn’t end there. Haier has partnered with the search engine Baidu, China’s answer to Google, a problematic company that has intimate connections with the CCP. As Kokas demonstrates, Haier has already used Baidu’s services to store data for the U+ Connect platform. This means that GE appliances have been integrated into the CCP’s comprehensive data storage system. Haier’s data-collecting devices, according to Kokas, “operate on a Chinese consumer platform that reports back to data centers in China.” Keep in mind that China has already stolen the data of 80 percent of Americans. These appliances appear to be helping Beijing steal even more data.
Some will say, what can the CCP learn about me from my microwave or refrigerator? To ask such a question misses the bigger picture. These devices can connect to other devices, including your cell phone, your child’s cell phone, your laptop, etc., which means that bad actors can also access these devices. The CCP doesn’t care about what you’re having for dinner, but it does care about your conversations, your browsing history, and the passwords stored on your devices.
Although it has been said many times before, it’s worth repeating: data is the new oil. China has identified a multitude of ways to steal data from unsuspecting Americans. TikTok, a Trojan horse for the CCP, is perhaps the most obvious example. A glorified data-harvesting app, TikTok has a staggering 1.5 billion users worldwide, and an estimated 80 million of these users live in the U.S. The data accumulated can be accessed by employees in China. And if it can be accessed by them, it can be accessed by the CCP.
In China, unsurprisingly, there’s no such thing as a private company. To think that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, or the aforementioned Haier—or any other Chinese company—is acting independently, entirely free from the omnipresent glare of the CCP, requires a complete suspension of disbelief. If it’s an app or a smart device and it has links to China, chances are you’re being monitored and mined for data. Protect yourself, people.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.