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US warns against linking Pacific data cable to Hong Kong

'Team Telecom' panel raises alarms over Chinese espionage

Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor: Google and Facebook have been pushing for an trans-Pacific data cable link connecting the U.S. and Hong Kong.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- An undersea Pacific data link between the U.S. and Asia should not connect to Hong Kong, a key government panel here recommends, citing the Chinese government's growing grip on the city and the potential for espionage.

The Justice Department-led interagency committee, known as Team Telecom, recommended that the Federal Communications Commission should deny the Pacific Light Cable Network from connecting to Hong Kong. It also recommended conditional approval for adding Taiwan and the Philippines to the network, backed by such technology giants as Google and Facebook.

The committee's recommendation was based partly on China's "sustained efforts to acquire the sensitive personal data of millions of U.S. persons," the Justice Department said. It also raised alarms over a Hong Kong unit of Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group, a major telecommunications service provider on the mainland, being "a significant investor in the PLCN."

The FCC will make the final call on Hong Kong's connection, based on the recommendation.

The Justice Department had begun looking into the Hong Kong data link before China announced plans to impose a national security law on the city. Adding Hong Kong "would expose U.S. communications traffic to collection by the PRC [People's Republic of China]," the department said. "Such concerns have been heightened by the PRC 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 Hong Kong government dismissed such concerns in a statement Thursday, characterizing them as "ungrounded."

"We attach great importance to the security and integrity of our telecommunications networks, which is widely acclaimed internationally," it said. "Our robust legal system also offers strong protection to privacy rights."

The White House plans to revoke special financial and trade privileges granted to the city. Hong Kong's function as a communications hub would likely also suffer should the recommendation be followed.

Rejecting the link would hurt American multinationals as well. The connection was meant to handle the increasing volumes of data moving between the U.S. and Asia.

In April, the FCC granted Google a temporary license to begin operating the U.S.-Taiwan portion of the communications link.

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