Big Tech Anxious About Commerce Plan to Secure Supply Chains from Foreign Influence

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Comments an association of industry giants made on a notice of proposed rulemaking from the Commerce Department come amid multiple government efforts to reduce cybersecurity risks in globally produced information and communications technology.

The Information Technology Industry Council is uneasy with language in a Commerce Department proposal for securing supply chains that suggests a need to conduct source-code reviews as part of a process for approving U.S. transactions of information and communications technology to guard against threats from China and other foreign adversaries.

“We have, on every occasion, pushed back against the examination of source code as a means to promote security and/or as a condition to do business in countries around the world, most notably China,” the trade association wrote in comments to Commerce Jan. 11 on a notice of proposed rulemaking the department was directed to issue under executive orders from Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump.   

Fear of information and communications technology used in the U.S. and around the world coming under control of the Chinese government or other foreign adversaries is shared across the political spectrum and the administration is joined by Congress in advancing efforts to scrutinize the supply chains of the critical technologies.

On Jan. 11, the Senate passed S. 2201, which would task the General Services Administration with creating a training program for making federal acquisitions that involves the use of counterintelligence. And on Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote to GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan pointing out use of certain Chinese technology within the federal government and wanting to know why it was still available for purchase through GSA after Congress had already banned their use by agencies.

ITI first objected to the Commerce Department’s approach in January, 2020, saying an interim final rule to implement the Trump order needed to be more specific about the kinds of technologies they would select for review on a case-by-case basis. In November, after Biden re-upped Trump’s order, Commerce sought comment on his administration’s proposal to remake the rule. But not much has changed, ITI said.

“We highlighted that the IFR was, at the time of publication, too broad to be practically implementable, going well beyond what is necessary to protect national security and address undue security risks to critical infrastructure supply chains,” the group wrote. “Given the fact that Commerce has yet to publish a substantive revision of the IFR, we must reiterate our still valid concern that the IFR remains overbroad and riddled with implementation challenges.”

ITI specifically took issue with the way Commerce seemed to be thinking about what independent third party assessments used in initial reviews for approval of risky information and communications technology—including connected software applications—should entail.

“Would the requirement to audit applications be understood to refer only to source-code examination and verification, or would it also include monitoring of logs or other data that the application collects?” Commerce asked in its proposal.

The big tech groups said it’s worrying that Commerce assumes “third-party auditing of connected software applications” should include such source-code reviews.

“Interpreting this phrase to mean “source-code examination and verification” as well as “monitoring of logs and other data” is troubling, as such examination could implicate business/trade secrets and compromise sensitive [intellectual property],” the group wrote. 

ITI said requiring such source code reviews and log monitoring could set a dangerous precedent and encourage adversarial countries to do the same. But that may already have been happening for years through both acknowledged and unacknowledged means. 

“China is a major threat to us,” Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division, said at a recent event. “They are requiring US-based companies to download certain software packages, and then they're stealing information from those software packages just for the ability to do work in China.”