How Google and Facebook’s 8,000-mile undersea data cable got caught in U.S.-China feud

U.S. officials on Wednesday said an undersea data cable backed by Google and Facebook should not connect through Hong Kong over concerns that the Chinese government might be able to access sensitive data.

Team Telecom, a government working committee with representatives from the U.S. Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense, recommended that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) partially deny the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) plan to build an 8,000-mile underwater cable connection between the U.S. and Asia.

The FCC in April approved Google’s request to operate the part of the cable that connects the U.S. to Taiwan, but not the portion that includes Hong Kong. Now, Team Telecom is advising that the whole project, which is subject to FCC approval, be rejected entirely if the route includes Hong Kong.

Team Telecom, which investigates foreign influence in U.S. telecommunications infrastructure, said in a statement released by the Department of Justice that it is “not in U.S. national security or law enforcement interests to approve subsea cables landing in [People’s Republic of China] territory when the PRC government has previously demonstrated the intent to acquire U.S. persons’ data.”

The cable’s Hong Kong landing station, the group said, “would expose U.S. communications traffic to collection by the PRC.”

Undersea cables carry more than 99% of the world’s data traffic. Google and Facebook both invested in PLCN alongside Pacific Light Data Communication (PLDC), a Hong Kong–based company that is majority owned by Chinese telecom firm Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group.

“We are reviewing Team Telecom’s petition. We look forward to working with Team Telecom and the FCC toward obtaining a full license,” a Facebook company spokesperson said in an email statement. Google and PLDC did not respond to a request for comment.

The PLCN project was announced in 2017 and touted as the first undersea cable to connect the U.S. and Hong Kong. (Most cables stretch from the U.S. to Japan.) PLCN, if constructed, will offer speeds of 120 terabytes of data per second—equivalent to 80 million simultaneous high-definition video calls between Hong Kong and Los Angeles, where the U.S. landing station for the cable is supposed to be built.

The Justice Department statement said its data theft concerns have been “heightened” by the Chinese government’s “recent actions to remove Hong Kong’s autonomy and allow for the possibility that PRC intelligence and security services will operate openly in Hong Kong.”

The statement refers to Beijing’s approval last month of a national security law for Hong Kong that bypasses the region’s legislature. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, and under the “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong and mainland China have separate legal, financial, and political infrastructure.

The law prompted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce that in Washington’s view, Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China, paving the way for the U.S. to roll back Hong Kong’s preferential economic status.

This story has been updated to include Facebook’s response.

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