Square Kilometre Array stoush is xenophobic nonsense

Recently I listened to the CSIRO’s Dr Brian Boyle give a very interesting talk here in Wellington about Australia’s plans for the Square Kilometre Array – a multi-billion dollar radio telescope project Australia is pitching for in competition with South Africa.

As part of a bid to prove Australia is the best place to host the SKA, the Australians are building a mini version of the SKA, in a pilot project known as Pathfinder. Apparently the Australians have secured a Chinese Government subsidiary, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (54th Research Institute), to build the 36 12m antennae.

As with many Chinese companies, the CETC group has past and existing ties to the Chinese military and could do a better job of relating to its English speaking customers. This from the website of the No.8 subsidiary:

“The No.8 institute insists on the strategic aim of Combing Military and Civil, Combing Peace and War, Military Product Being Prior, Military Products Being Supported by Civil Products in the national defense industry.”

The awarding of the $10 million antennae contract to SKA hasn’t gone down well with the US military, which is building a communications installation (think ECHELON) 370km north of Perth that will be integral to coordinating US satellite intelligence gathering in the Middle East.

The issue is that the SKA antennae will be located in the same area as the new intelligence base and the US are worried the Chinese will be able to wirelessly tap into the communications being beamed to and from the military communications base.

The Daily Telegraph reporter Piers Akerman, quoted an unnamed US military source as saying: “They could put trapdoors in their software that we would never find and be unloading, and heaven forbid, sending data to both US and allied forces in the field, with truly awful consequences.”

In his blog and free of the “objectivity” required of news reporting, Akerman lays his cards flat on the table:

“Letting a Chinese Government company run an electronics shop next door to our most important defence intelligence and operations post is beyond dumb. It is recklessly stupid and must be stopped.

Never mind that the CSIRO has pointed out that the Chinese company is only building the antennae and not the receivers or the intelligence built into the network. Never mind that the SKA pilot antennae array will be finely tuned to look into deep space for the purposes of scientific research and is probably incapable of picking up and deciphering anything being transmitted and received by its military neighbours. And never mind that the CSIRO is already collaborating with Chinese researchers and organisations in other areas, including the development of wireless broadband equipment.

Still, nothing to get debate going like a jingoistic beat-up, as the 200-odd comments in response to Akerman’s blog shows. Still, I rather agree with this reader:

“While it is fun pretending the Chinese are the bad guys (I do often), thinking they’ll let the Evil Chinese install equipment unsupervised is bordering on tinfoil hattery!”