China’s Tweaked Cybersecurity Law Worries Critics

December 28, 2015, 3:01 PM UTC
Christmas Eve In Beijing
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 24: A SWAT team guards the popular shopping district of Sanlitun during Christmas Eve on December 24, 2015 in Beijing, China. The British,U.S. and French embassies in China say they have received information of possible threats against Westerners in Beijing around Christmas. (Photo by Emmanuel Wong/Getty Images)
Photograph by Emmanuel Wong—Getty Images

On Sunday, Chinese legislators passed a revised anti-terrorism law that dropped some controversial language but still is seen as too broad to placate U.S.-based companies and the U.S. government itself, according to The New York Times and other reports.

Under the new law, telephone companies and Internet service providers (ISPs) must provide “technical interfaces, decryption and other technical support and assistance” to state security agencies investigating terrorist activities.

That means there may not be government-mandated back doors in high-tech products, but that won’t matter much if Chinese investigators can compel tech companies to hand over encryption keys meant to secure data against prying eyes.

Terrorist attacks pose “a serious threat to our security, stability, economic development and ethnic unity,” An Weixing, an official with the public security ministry, told reporters, according to the Xinua news agency.

MORE: Cybersecurity’s Privacy Problem

The news comes in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks last month in Paris and more recently in San Bernadino, Calif. One of the worst attacks in China came in March 2014, when assailants with knives killed 29 people at a train station in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. Four alleged extremist Islamic terrorists have been sentenced to death for that attack.

But critics contend that the Chinese government’s definition of terrorism is too broad and could lead to overreach by Chinese authorities.

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The new law, which is slated to go into effect in January, also authorizes armed forces and police to run counterterrorism operations outside China, provided they get approval from the foreign country in question, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. and Chinese governments have traded charges of espionage and counterespionage for years now, exacerbated by Edward Snowden’s disclosure two years ago of NSA spying on foreign governments, including China. On the other hand, both the U.S. and China face risks of terrorist attacks both internally and abroad so the pressure is on to sniff out plots before they can take place.

Meanwhile tech giants including Apple (APPL), Google (GOOG), and Microsoft (MSFT) have bridled at the suggestion that they provide national authorities either back doors or encryption keys to customer data residing in their systems.

WATCH: For more on U.S. and China cybersecurity issues, watch this Fortune video:

Most recently, Apple last week slammed the United Kingdom’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill that would give that country’s intelligence agencies broader spy powers, akin to those already available to their U.S. counterparts.


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