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Computer chip makers can't share all the data the U.S. wants for examining shortages


A year ago, not many people gave much thought to semiconductors; you know, those chips that are critical components in basically everything like cars, computers, all kinds of appliances. Well, this pandemic, along with a few other factors, led to a severe shortage of semiconductors. And the Commerce Department is now trying to get to the bottom of what's going on. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In order to understand why semiconductors are so hard to come by, the Commerce Department is examining the supply chain to see if there's any hoarding or where the bottlenecks are. Paul Triolo, who heads up tech policy at the Eurasia Group, says the Biden administration is doing this under pressure from a key consumer of these chips - the auto industry.

PAUL TRIOLO: They were the most impacted in terms of job loss and, you know, inability to produce vehicles because of those missing components.

NORTHAM: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo gave semiconductor manufacturers, as well as car companies and other end users like Apple, 45 days to provide supply chain information to her department. The deadline is today.

Ashley Feng is with the Atlantic Council's Global Trade Hub. She says the request for information covers a wide range of data.

ASHLEY FENG: Things like, you know, your research and development processes, your manufacturing processes. And for, like, a semiconductor manufacturing company, a lot of those things can be technically classified as trade secrets.

NORTHAM: The request for information is not just for U.S. companies. It includes the two companies that dominate semiconductor manufacturing - South Korea's Samsung and TSMC out of Taiwan. Feng says both these companies have an incentive to comply with the Commerce Department's request for information. Otherwise, they could face a backlash.

FENG: Which is, you know, maybe being targeted by Congress, maybe a little bit less - facing a little less friendly environment from this administration or U.S. policymakers in general. I mean, in order for these businesses to do business in the United States, you know, they have to abide by the laws.

NORTHAM: The Eurasia Group's Triolo says some big companies like Samsung, Intel and TSMC simply can't turn over the most sensitive data about their clients. He says most of it is tightly held as proprietary information.

TRIOLO: They have very strict non-disclosure agreements with their clients. In some cases, or in most cases, that information is not really theirs to give or, you know, it requires a lot of legal hoops to jump through here. And that's why I think a lot of the companies are going to probably - and commerce has agreed to this - to fuzzy-up this data.

NORTHAM: In other words, the computer chip makers could say what type of company it sells to rather than the specific name. John Miller is a senior vice president at the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents 80 of the largest technology companies in the world. He says ITI is supportive of the administration's efforts to address bottlenecks in the supply chain, but...

JOHN MILLER: I think there are some outstanding questions just around how the data will be protected and how it will be used. So we'd really like the data to be treated with the sensitivity and anonymity necessary to avoid jeopardizing the dealings of any given business.

NORTHAM: Right now, this request for information is strictly voluntary, but Raimondo has made it clear she could invoke the Defense Protection Act, which would force companies to hand over information. The Commerce Department says it has heard from several companies that they plan to be very forthcoming with their data.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.