STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of the most raw parts of the U.S. rivalry with China involves the way that China has obtained U.S. technology. And this year, the United States will likely add new restrictions on the export of certain technologies, a move that is mostly aimed at China. It is meant to help American companies, but it turns out it could also limit the ability of American firms to compete. Here's NPR's Emily Feng.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The cybersecurity firm McAfee, known for its antivirus software, is constantly monitoring the Internet, searching for the next big threat. The company's chief technology officer, Steve Grobman, explains.
STEVE GROBMAN: We actually have a billion sensors deployed around the world that allows us to see new threats, track where they go.
FENG: Now McAfee is one of thousands of American technology companies at the frontlines of a global tech rivalry between the U.S. and China. Grobman says the Trump administration's plans to update export controls, which would restrict U.S. companies from exporting sensitive technologies, could give the bad guys the upper hand.
GROBMAN: They're going to use the best technology that they can get their hands on in order to create the most malicious capabilities that would potentially impact our customers.
FENG: Those controls are the most ambitious measures thus far, aimed at shutting down Chinese hackers and companies stealing technology to get ahead. That theft is a key sticking point in ongoing trade talks between Beijing and Washington to resolve a nearly one-year trade war. In November, the administration sought comment on possible new export controls for emerging and foundational technologies, technologies core to cutting-edge applications. That concerns researchers such as Joanne Kamens.
JOANNE KAMENS: It just slows down science in general for all the people doing good and important discovery research.
FENG: Kamens is executive director of Addgene, a biomedical nonprofit that supports research by sharing material like chromosomal DNA worldwide. She warns export controls could hurt this kind of cooperation, cutting the U.S. off from a global research community. That would open the door to China to race ahead.
KAMENS: DNA is a linear sequence of letters. Once the letters are known, anyone in the world could, for money and time, make any one of these things.
FENG: The new proposed controls could even restrict who universities and companies hire. Erin Ennis, the senior vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council, explains how companies might have to be licensed to pass knowledge of a technology to a foreign citizen.
ERIN ENNIS: Not only is the product that they make covered by an export control, but the employees that they have would be covered by them, as well.
FENG: That's worrying for many tech companies, such as those writing code and working on artificial intelligence. Addgene's Joanne Kamens stresses that modern research almost always crosses international boundaries.
KAMENS: Basic research, which has given rise, of course, to so many important discoveries that have driven all of the cures in the clinic - you know, all of that work is done collaboratively with scientists between countries.
FENG: Instead, cybersecurity analysts like New America's Samm Sacks advocate a small yard, high fence approach - restricting the sale of specific technologies with military applications but leaving everything else accessible.
SAMM SACKS: Because tools like export controls, these kinds of things were meant to be used as scalpels but not as blunt instruments.
FENG: Sometime this summer, the U.S. Commerce Department will release a second proposed export controls list for foundational technologies. American tech companies who submitted comments hope the Commerce Department will narrow down what is restricted. So far, they haven't heard back. Emily Feng, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL JAZZY CHAVO'S "ONE FOR THE WAITRESS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.