A major element of China's continent-spanning Belt and Road Initiative has nothing to do with roads, ports or power plants. Rather, the "Digital Silk Road" aims to construct communications networks across the developing world.
Many fear Beijing could use those tools for electronic surveillance.
The world's second-largest economy wants to build fiber optic cables, international trunk passageways, mobile structures and e-commerce links in countries tied to its investment initiative. These technologies are designed to supplement the Belt and Road's physical infrastructure while introducing common technical standards in participating nations, most of which are emerging economies and lack rudimentary internet facilities.
Boosting connectivity can enable information exchanges, bringing about "mutual benefit and win-win cooperation" according to a 2015 white paper jointly released by various Chinese government bodies. But there are geopolitical implications if foreign governments allow Chinese technology companies — believed to carry close ties with the state — to install complex data communications systems.
A big fear is that Chinese players will insert "backdoor mechanisms that could increase [Beijing's] intelligence and propaganda operations in BRI partner countries," researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations said in a note last week.
State-owned China Mobile, the world's biggest telecom carrier by subscriber count, is currently building optical fiber cable projects linking Beijing to Myanmar, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, private player Huawei signed a deal last year to build a cable system linking Pakistan to Kenya via Djibouti. Talks are also underway for state-owned China Telecom to help build fiber-optic links in the Arctic Circle.
Cables, which transfer massive amounts of personal, government and financial data, are controlled by telecommunications firms. So, when it comes to enforcing security, regulatory grey areas emerge.