Tech in 2019: what’s in store for APAC

south china sea mapIn today’s globalised business world, what happens in Shenzhen or Singapore may be just as important as trends closer to home. To that end, I recently offered IDG Connect the following round-up of the past year in APAC, and a few notes on what we can expect from the months ahead. As Apple’s dire performance in China has shown, Asia increasingly matters to Western tech firms, their customers, shareholders and partners: 

Asia’s technology market had more global exposure in 2018 than in many recent years. There’s just one problem: most of it was negative. President Trump has begun a de facto trade war with China which has now morphed into a full-fledged stand-off on several fronts, with cyber-espionage and perceived unfair Chinese trading practices at the heart of US grievances. As we head into 2019 expect tensions to increase, with other south-east Asian nations potentially benefitting as US firms pull their supply chain operations from the Middle Kingdom.

It could be an extremely nervy time for Silicon Valley CEOs.

The trade war continues

The tit-for-tat trade war started in 2018 might have so far steered largely clear of tech goods, although some firms have begun to warn of an impact on profits. But the industry has certainly been at the heart of the stand-off between the world’s superpowers. In January a deal between Huawei and AT&T to sell the former’s smartphones in the US collapsed after pressure from lawmakers worried about unspecified security concerns. Then came a seven-year ban on US firms selling to ZTE — the result of the Chinese telco breaking sanctions by selling to Iran, and then lying to cover its tracks. Although part of the ban was subsequently lifted temporarily, it highlighted to many in the Chinese government what president Xi Jinping had been saying for some time: the country needs to become self-sufficient in technology. It was reinforced when Huawei became the subject of a similar investigation.

This is about America, and Trump in particular, fighting back against what it sees as years of unfair trading practices by China. The argument goes that the Asian giant has been engaged in cyber-espionage on an epic scale to catch up technologically with the West, and unfairly forces IP transfers on foreign firms as the price for access to its huge domestic market. Thus, the coming year will see a ratcheting up of tensions. China on the one side will look to increase its espionage in areas like mobile phone processors to accelerate plans to become self-sufficient. And the US will continue to find ways to crack down on Chinese firms looking to access its market — probably citing national security concerns. There are even reports that the US has considered a total ban on Chinese students coming to the country over espionage concerns.

“Technology CEOs the world over with supply chain dependencies in China — so probably all of them — should be increasingly nervous and focused on their firms’ efforts to have viable contingency plans for a US-China technology cold war,” wrote China-watcher Bill Bishop in his Sinocism newsletter. That could spell good news for other ASEAN nations like Vietnam, where Samsung has made a major investment in facilities — although few countries in the region boast the infrastructure links and volume of skilled workers China does.

Cybersecurity takes centre stage

As mentioned, cybersecurity and online threats are at the heart of the Sino-US stand-off. The stakes got even higher after a blockbuster report from Bloomberg Businessweek which claimed Chinese intelligence officers had implanted spy chips on motherboards heading for a US server maker. Although the claims have been denied by Apple, Amazon and the server maker in question, Supermicro, they will confirm what many have feared about supply chain risk for a long time and accelerate efforts in 2019 to move facilities out of China. Further fanning the flames is a US indictment alleging Chinese spies worked with insiders including the head of IT security at a French aerospace company’s China plant to steal IP.

In a move likely to enrage China, the US also recently arrested and charged a Ministry of State Security (MSS) operative with conspiracy to steal aviation trade secrets. A major backlash is likely to come from Beijing. But more could also come from Washington after a combative congressional report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission called for a clampdown on supply chain risk and warned of China’s efforts to dominate 5G infrastructure and IoT production.

Aside from state-sponsored attackers, there’s a growing threat from Chinese cyber-criminals, according to one security vendor. Western firms suffer millions of attacks per year from financially motivated Chinese hackers, according to IntSights. Expect that to increase in the future as the state encourages criminals to focus their efforts outside the country, or even to team up with hacking groups at arm’s length. Also expect the country’s Cybersecurity Law to have a growing impact on how Western firms do business there. Ostensibly meant to vet such firms for interference by the NSA and CIA, the law could also serve as a pretext for Chinese officials to access sensitive IP and source code belonging to Western firms operating in China.

For other countries in the region, improving cybersecurity is vital to their efforts to attract more foreign IT investment and nurture start-up friendly environments. Although there are pockets of good practice, APAC is thought to be among the least mature regions worldwide. AT Kearney has called on ASEAN nations to increase cybersecurity spending to around $170 billion, warning that they are in danger of losing $750 billion in market capitalisation otherwise.

The threat from Chinese spies and local hackers is compounded by the growing danger posed by North Korea. Its state-sponsored hackers are acting with increasing impunity. FireEye recently identified a new group, APT38, which was responsible for the attacks on Bangladesh Bank and other financially motivated raids. Expect more attacks aimed at raising funds for the regime, as well as destructive campaigns and politically motivated information theft.

Taking a lead

On a more positive note, APAC is increasingly seen as a leader in emerging digital technologies: led by the two regional giants of India and China but also mature nations like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Microsoft believes that digital transformation will inject over $1 trillion to APAC GDP by 2021, with artificial intelligence (AI) a key catalyst for growth.

AI continues to be major focus for the region. Singapore is a leader in AI thanks to heavy government investment in schemes such as AI Singapore (AISG) and its AI Speech Lab, while government-owned investment company SGInnovate has recently unveiled its Deep Tech Nexus strategy. India is also is also poised to become “one of the most active centres of expertise in AI” according to experts, thanks to government backing.

Asia is leading the way on smart city projects. Investment in initiatives was set to reach $28.3 billion in 2018 in APAC (ex Japan), and is forecast to reach $45.3 billion in 2021 — partly out of necessity. The region’s cities are forecast to add another one billion citizens by 2040, which will require up to 65% of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets to be met.

India’s Modi government has led the way with an ambitious plan to transform 100 cities, although 2019 will be a crucial year, given that recent reports claim 72% of these projects are still only at the planning stage. Many more examples are springing up all over the ASEAN region, however, from flood awareness programmes in Danang to a free public Wi-Fi and CCTV camera network in Phuket. IDC celebrates some of the best examples each year, showing the breadth of innovation in the region.

However, governments will need to do better in 2019 to tackle major barriers to digital transformation identified by the UN. These include excessively top-down approaches; security, privacy, and accountability problems; and digital exclusion. It claimed just 43% of APAC residents were internet users in 2016. There’s plenty of work for governments and the private sector to do next year.

 


East Asia top source of cyber espionage, but with major caveats

chinaVerizon’s annual Data Breach Investigations Report is out and several headlines have pointed to it highlighting China once again as the biggest source of global cyber espionage threats, however we need to be careful drawing such conclusions.

The report revealed that when it comes to cyber espionage, the majority (87%) is state affiliated rather than committed by organised crime (11%) and is targeted at victim organisations outside of the country of origin.

When it comes to “victim countries”, the US (54%) accounts for by far the majority, followed by South Korea (6%) and Japan (3%), although this is more of a reflection of the intelligence sources that inform the report than anything else.

More interestingly, it pegged “external actors” operating from Eastern Asia – mainly China and North Korea – as the most prolific worldwide, accounting for 49%.

Eastern Europe was next (21%), followed by Western Asia (4%), while North America and Europe were way down with just 1% each.

So what does this tell us? Well, those looking to prove that China is once again the arch bogeyman when it comes to global state-sponsored attacks should think twice, according to Verizon.

Report co-author and senior analyst, Kevin Thompson, told me that the results reflect the fact that large numbers of North American companies participate in the study and relatively few hail from East Asia – with none from China and Japan.

“We have been trying to recruit a partner organisation from China, Japan, or South Korea to increase our visibility into that part of the world,” he added. “Since many of our partners that investigate cyber espionage are based in North America they tend to only see attacks that are aimed at North American companies.”

Also, out of 511 total cyber espionage incidents recorded, more than half (281) were removed because no country could be attributed as the source of an attack.

“East Asia is the most commonly seen espionage actor when our partners are able to identify the country at all, which is not even half of the time,” Thompson explained.

“There tends to be more research around East Asian espionage than other countries, especially among North American partner organisations. Since there is more research in that area, it is easier for a partner to identify espionage from those regions while espionage from North America or Europe might be labelled ‘Unknown’ and would not be included in figure 59 of the report.”

If the NSA revelations have taught us anything it’s that the 1% figure for North America-based attacks is likely to be way smaller than in reality.

Verizon also claimed in the report that “the percentage of incidents attributed to East Asia is much less predominant in this year’s dataset”.

The real growth in activity is actually coming from Eastern European attackers, it said, adding the following:

At a high level, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the industries targeted by East Asian and Eastern European groups. Chinese actors appeared to target a greater breadth of industries, but that’s because there were more campaigns attributed to them.

Malicious email attachment (78%) and web drive-by (20%) are still the most popular method of gaining access to a victim’s environment.

As for advice on how to lower the risk of a compromise, Verizon reiterated the basics.

These include: patch all systems and software so they’re fully up-to-date; use and keep an updated anti-malware solution; maintain user training and awareness programs; segment your network; log system, network, and application activity; monitor outbound traffic for data exfiltration; and use 2FA to stop lateral movement inside the network.


Then there were three: Lenovo prepares to join the US smartphone race

lenovoI’ve been doing a bit of work researching a piece on the latest Lenovo bombshell to hit the tech world – its $2.9bn bid for Motorola Mobility. Now, in my innocence, I reckoned there might be quite a few hurdles for Lenovo on this one, but the analysts I spoke to were pretty upbeat on the deal.

Remarkably, most were pretty confident this was a good buy and that it’ll help propel the firm to third in the global smartphone stakes in a matter of a couple of year.

It’s easy to see why on paper. Here’s what Canalys APAC MD Rachel Lashford told me were the main benefits for Lenovo:

·         Immediate entry to the US market, Motorola’s major market, as well as key markets in Western Europe and Latin America.

·         A unique relationship with Google.

·         Credibility with operators and consumers worldwide.

·         Existing US operator relationships and a handful of global ones.

·         Additional experienced phone sales teams.

·         Additional and highly rated phone engineers.

·         Additional tablet and phone shipments, as it becomes the key manufacturer of Google’s Nexus line.

Hard to argue with that lot. It’s also hard to see how Lenovo could have done better than Motorola – there wasn’t much choice out there, after all (BlackBerry? HTC?). Except that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Although it has high brand recognition in the US, Motorola is a fading star, with neither innovative designs or huge volume sales to its name.

I wonder then if it’s really going to give Lenovo that huge leg-up into the US smartphone space it desperately wants. I’ll be even more surprised if Lenovo merges the two brands, as various analysts told me will happen eventually, unless Plan A has succeeded perfectly.

The thing I imagined would cause the biggest potential roadblock is a US political backlash. Lawmakers can be a pretty obstinate bunch, especially when they feel their country is being invaded by ‘foreign hordes’.

It’s certainly right to say that Lenovo has a better relationship with the US government – where ThinkPads are still used – than most Chinese firms, and that consumer smartphones are hardly a national security matter, unlike telecoms infrastructure (sorry Huawei, ZTE). But I still think there’s the potential for a unwelcome bit of political interference here, especially if some more news comes to light on Chinese spying and state links to tech firms.

Given the stakes, it’s not surprising Lenovo has apparently hired some big name attorneys, some of whom have worked for the CIA and Homeland Security, to help it lobby the deal through.

Lashford even speculated that “announcing two deals in one month will ease its progress, not complicate it”. I suppose we’ll all have to wait and see on that one.

One thing’s for certain: Motorola employees will be a happy bunch. I wonder how may will be queuing up for Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing’s annual $3m employee bonus giveaway?