Rumors of WiFi-WAPI war

In 1972, President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger made their historic visit to communist China. On the last day of the visit, at a state dinner, Kissinger found himself sitting next to the aging Chairman Mao. He turned to him and said: "Mr. Chairman, before I joined government I was an academic studying revolutions and revolutionary movements. You, Mr. Chairman, led one of the 20th century's greatest revolutions. As a revolutionary, then, how would you evaluate the over-all impact of the French Revolution on mankind?" Mao thought for a minute, then responded: "It is too early to tell."

This tendency of the Chinese to consider things over the long haul is in evidence again. The China Business News reports that 20 Chinese scientists, representing universities, research centers, and government agencies, attended a WLAN security technology seminar put together by the China National Information Technology Standardization Technical Committee (CNITST). These scientists argued that Intel's Centrino mobile technology was not safe, and that computers equipped with the technology could be cracked within five minutes. During the seminar, these scientists showed that Centrino-equipped laptops were easily penetrated and that hackers could link to the encoded WLAN, allowing them to revise or delete documents.

There is nothing special about this report, except that it leads me to think that the dormant WAPI-WiFi war is about to erupt again. Recall that back in 2001, the Chinese government wanted to impose its own, Chinese-developed security standard called WAPI (for WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure) on all WLAN gear sold in China. The Chinese government designated some 20 Chinese companies as licensed to build WAPI into WLAN equipment, and all non-Chinese companies that wanted to sell their wares in the Chinese market had to contract one of these designated companies so that the standard could be incorporated into the equipment brought into China.

Western companies--and Western government--resisted, seeing in the Chinese move a thinly disguised ploy to make it easy for Chinese companies to do what they do best: steal or otherwise obtain Western industrial secrets to use in their own products. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the designated Chinese companies would use their exclusive license to install WAPI to learn as much as they could about the Western products in which they were installing WAPI, then use this knowledge in their own IT products--products they would then sell in the West in competition with the very companies with which they had partnerships.

The first round ended with a Western victory, with the Chinese agreeing to postpone "indefinitely" the imposition of WAPI. We soon learned, however, that in Chinese, "indefinitely" means two years. In 2004, the Chinese began to agitate again for the introduction of WAPI, trying to persuade various international standard fora to accept China's right to impose the standard. The latest effort took place in March in Geneva, where the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) meeting took a vote on the issue. The Chinese delegation failed to persuade the organization to prefer WAPI to 802.11i, but it is clear that China is not giving up. The news report about the Chinese scientists finding flaws in Centrino should be read in this context. Stay tuned.

For more on the WAPI-WiFi war
- see this Forbes' report

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