There seems little that lawmakers on different sides of the aisle can agree on today, yet in a hopeful sign of unity, on Thursday the United States Senate unanimously passed legislation that will take steps to further crack down on the use of telecommunications products from companies deemed to be a national security threat, including those based in China.
The “Secure Equipment Act of 2021(S. 1790 / H.R. 3919) will close a loophole by directing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt rules to clarify that it will no longer review or issue new equipment licenses to companies on the agency’s “Covered Equipment or Services List” that could potentially pose a national security threat.
The FCC will also be required to maintain the list under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, which laid out detailed criteria for determining what communications equipment or services pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. safety.
The bill had been approved by the House of Representatives last week in a vote of 420-4, and it will now head to the President’s desk for signature. The bipartisan House bill introduced by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), while the legislation was sponsored in the upper chamber by Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
All four lawmakers expressed satisfaction in the passage of the bill.
“Chinese state-directed companies like Huawei and ZTE are known national security threats and have no place in our telecommunications network,” said Sen. Rubio said in a statement. “Now, President Biden must swiftly sign it into law so that the Chinese Communist Party can no longer exploit this dangerous loophole.”
Sen. Markey added, “In today’s increasingly connected world, we must animate our technology with our values,” and suggested that “the bipartisan legislation will keep compromised equipment out of U.S. telecommunications networks and ensure our technology is safe for consumers and secure for the United States.”
Improving on the FCC Rules
While this measure could further protect U.S. interests, the FCC has already introduced proposed rule-making that could go beyond even what’s required in the Secure Equipment Act, allowing the agency to revoke previously issued authorizations to companies.
In 2020, the FCC actually adopted new rules that required the U.S. telecommunications carriers to “rip and replace equipment” that was provided by those Chinese firms. However, those rules only applied to equipment purchased with federal funding, and the same equipment could be used if purchased with private or non-federal government dollars. The language in S. 1790 is intended to close that loophole, while also further preventing identified security threats from having a presence in U.S. telecommunications networks.
The fact too that this had unanimous support shows how important the passage of this bill is to the security of the United States.
“This is a big deal, and we have to think in historic terms,” said Robert A. Sanders, associate professor and chair of the national security department at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.
The dangers of having a potential adversary monitor our communications is becoming all too easy, Sanders told ClearnaceJobs.
“We had an embassy in Moscow that was bugged to the max, it was useless,” Sanders explained. “We’ve now moved forward to allow a co-opting of our critical communication infrastructure at home. We need to see that this equipment is being manufactured by a potential adversary, and certainly can’t have that.
“The fact that Washington, which can barely see the same thing as it looks at everything from two different direction can see the importance really shows how pronounced of a national security threat this is,” he added. “It is good to see that the action is being taken and that is really notable.”
However, stopping the use of Chinese-made hardware is just one part of a much bigger issue. The United States needs to move away from dependence on such foreign-made hardware in our critical communication networks.
“We need to find a way to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector, and these are the things we need to build for ourselves,” Sanders noted. “If we allow third parties to be our source in American infrastructure we do damage to our national security.”