Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on June 12, 2006
Another ugly turn in the long saga of China’s home-grown wireless encryption standard. Two years ago, Intel and other companies complained about Beijing’s attempts to force them to use WAPI, a Chinese-made standard intended to improve security for WiFi. The Chinese backed down on mandating that all companies use WAPI but persisted in boosting the standard – and trying to win over critics abroad. Not many people are buying WAPI, though. Over the weekend, WAPI hit the headlines again when a Chinese delegation attending a conference organized by the International Standardization Organization in the Czech Republic stormed out of the meeting, accusing rivals in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers of creating an “unfair atmosphere.”
Are the Chinese just being sore losers? That’s the view of ZDNet, which charges that WAPI just doesn’t make the grade – thanks in part to Beijing’s unwillingness to open up and share information. “There’s no way that ISO would back a wireless technology without giving it serious, thorough examination. That wasn’t possible with WAPI, it appears, as China has declined to release full details. There was no way to check the algorithms for cryptographic strength or for back doors, and such details as were known — its lack of backward compatibility — would have harmed any proposal regardless of its source.”
Maybe what we’re seeing now is a case of China’s ambitions for global tech leadership coming up against the regime’s chronic need to control information. Just about anything can be considered a state secret in China. (Here’s a good list of some of the things that are too secret to reveal.) And, of course, one of the reasons Beijing was promoting WAPI in the first place was to boost its own ability to decode the secrets of others. But winning approval for WAPI requires opening it up for others to see. In Prague there were two choices: Provide the information necessary to win international approval for WAPI or storm out and denounce a foreign plot. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that the consipracy theorists seem to have won out.