Oct 12, 2021 - World

Book: The hidden U.S.-China technology war

Book cover image of The Wires of War by Jacob Helberg

Image credit: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

China, along with Russia, North Korea and Iran, is using commercial and dual-use technology to challenge democratic security and sovereignty, former Google global news policy lead Jacob Helberg argues in a new book.

Why it matters: It's a new type of hidden conflict that Helberg, who helped lead Google's internal efforts to fight global disinformation and state-backed foreign interference between 2016 and 2020, calls a "gray war."

  • "What I saw as the global lead for news policy at Google is that the Gray War isn't just coming. It's already here," Helberg writes.

Background: In 2016, Helberg had recently joined Google when the company learned a Russian state-backed group was using Google accounts to spread disinformation and influence the U.S. political process — a revelation that horrified many Google employees.

  • "Over the three-plus years that I worked at Google, my day-to-day experience gradually became defined less by dreamy optimism and more by something darker," he writes.

Details: Helberg's new book out this month, "The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power," delves into that "something darker."

  • He describes a "front-end" battle to control what users see on their screens, including information and software — and a "back-end" battle to control the hardware of technology and the internet, from 5G to fiber-optic cables and satellites.

Helberg also provides a helpful framework for the debate over using the term "new Cold War" to describe the current U.S.-China relationship: "The question is not whether we are reliving the Cold War but whether we are living through a cold war."

The stakes: "The spoils of this war are power over every meaningful aspect of our society: our economy, our infrastructure, our ability to compete and innovate, our personal privacy, our culture, and subtle daily decisions we make based on information we interact with online," Helberg writes.

  • "And in recent years, unfortunately, the world's democracies have been losing ground."

Helberg's proposed toolkit for winning the gray war includes:

  • Use trade policy and alliances to create a democratic "techno-bloc" with a free and secure internet and information infrastructure.
  • Develop the capability to levy "cyber sanctions" that restrict access to technologies and platforms controlled by hostile foreign governments, both as a punitive measure for bad behavior and to protect U.S. national security.
  • Vet the activities of U.S. companies beyond U.S. borders. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States screens foreign acquisitions and mergers of U.S. assets for national security concerns. Helberg suggests that the government should also have similar oversight over the foreign activities of U.S. companies.
Go deeper