The US needs a tech doctrine

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project started with a simple premise: that technology is increasingly intertwined with global affairs and that we ought to examine what that means for both. From crypto to climate, international development to defense procurement, I hope we’ve done just that.

Reflecting on the nearly 40 pieces we’ve published over the last few months, I can’t help but see a few common threads emerge: Tech industrial policy is increasingly in favor. Emerging tech is top of mind. And where China isn’t setting the pace, it isn’t far behind.

While the U.S. has made remarkable strides in meeting these challenges (see my piece on the State Department’s new cyber bureau), it still lags on perhaps the most important one: navigating the increasing fusion of geopolitics and technology. If the U.S. is to succeed in the contest for the 21st century, it needs more than new agencies or investments in infrastructure (however large they may be). Even an industrial strategy is insufficient.

What America needs is a geopolitical technology doctrine.
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What do I mean by a doctrine? Well for the most part, technology policy can be seen in two ways. The first is as a new security domain. The public and private sectors have spent billions of dollars improving our cyber capabilities to both protect our civil and military networks and acquire the ability to strike our adversaries. While many of our networks are still woefully vulnerable, we generally know the challenges and are making strides to shore up our defenses.

The second follows the thesis that the future will be won by whichever country controls (and integrates into its economy) the most advanced technologies. Thus tech policy becomes a function of broader economic competition. This is the ground on which much of our current debate is held — are we on the right track on emerging tech like 5G, quantum or artificial intelligence? Are our supply chains secure? What regulatory edge can we give American tech companies? How can we work with allies to jump-start those efforts?

These two facets of technology policy are incredibly important — and well worth the attention paid to them in this series and elsewhere. Look only to Russia, which has found itself cut off from Western tech supply chains and software updates as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

But they shortchange a significant element of tech’s role in geopolitics that I hope we’ve raised here as well. That yes, tech is an asset. But like other economic resources (ahem, the U.S. dollar), tech can also be a leverage point that gives policymakers clever ways to further broader foreign policy interests. Yet for the most part, we have not thought systematically about how to wield this power — or protect it.

Our rivals aren’t so diffident. As with many asymmetric capabilities, it’s the authoritarian regimes, unconcerned by scruples over such things as human rights or the rule of law, that have pioneered creative and effective — if odious and unethical — geopolitical tech strategies.

Early in our series, Scott Carpenter warned about the baleful trend of dictators simply shutting down the internet to deprive their citizens of information. Matthew Hedges and Ali Al-Ahmed wrote about how regimes have deployed spyware to hunt down dissidents — and how countries like Israel have exported this technology to lubricate their own diplomacy. Jessica Brandt explored how Russia and China use social media to spread disinformation that discredits the West. And Samantha Hoffman wrote about how China uses data its firms collect to acquire intelligence around the world.

Obviously these are not practices democracies should emulate, and even if they wanted to, law, custom and democratic accountability would mostly preclude it. And the U.S. and its allies can’t make tech companies arms of the state. But they do raise important questions about where technology fits in American statecraft.

For the last two decades, American tech companies have dominated the landscape with a simple strategy: growth at all costs. And the U.S. government, equating tech’s success with America’s, has let tech — especially Big Tech — do just that, essentially ceding the regulatory space until quite recently.

But the world is too sophisticated, and “growth” too blunt a tool, for that to remain the goal moving forward. Should tech supremacy be pursued for its own sake as an expression of American soft power? For economic position? As a means to best our rivals? Or because it is something that can be weaponized?

The answer can’t just be “yes” and “more.” We need a new framework that reconciles what tech can do with what it should do — and with what we as a nation need it to do.

Even if we can agree that U.S. interests are served by technological dominance, that still leaves a crucial question unanswered: How should tech be wielded geopolitically?

Western technology export controls on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine are an encouraging use of geotechnological hard power. But Washington can be even more creative; it might use an emerging technology like crypto to bolster U.S. dollar dominance, like Connor Spelliscy suggested or deploy technology to enforce treaties we value, as Thomas McInerney described.

But America is most effective when it plays to its strengths, building upon alliances, networks and the rule of law. That might entail using technology as a tool to expand democracy, per Vera Zakem; stepping in, as Australia did, to build a cable to Pacific islands in lieu of China; or working with Apple and Google to protect dissidents. The U.S. should also take lessons from Ukraine’s creative information campaign against Russia to deploy in future conflicts.

Rather than fruitlessly trying to dictate outcomes, a better strategy would be to encode liberal values in emerging technologies. China has recognized that growing its tech sector is not enough if it doesn’t also set the rules of the road. That’s why it has become very successful at dominating the global fora that set new technology standards. And it’s not just a question of writing rules that benefit Chinese companies (i.e., Huawei in 5G); if authoritarian regimes are able to encode their repressive values in the rules and norms around critical emerging technology like AI, autonomous weapons or biotechnology, it could pose a serious threat to freedom and human rights everywhere. The U.S. and its allies must do the hard work to push back by attending to the patient, technical diplomacy that they have too often overlooked.

Above all, a proper geopolitical tech doctrine would, like all good strategic concepts, recognize limits. The U.S. is no longer Colossus bestriding the world, and it would be folly to think it can impose its will, even on its allies. Americans can’t achieve internet freedom just by wishing it so — and should accept that not every country’s internet needs to be identical for a free and open internet to succeed. If Apple, with a single policy decision, can cut Facebook’s market capitalization by a quarter, there’s no reason why (democratic) governments shouldn’t be able to have reasonably different regulatory regimes in their own jurisdictions.

Americans (and American tech companies) have grown used to having it all. But as technological supremacy becomes increasingly central to geopolitics, tech policy will no longer be made in a vacuum. Politics is the art of making choices, and Silicon Valley doesn’t have to like all of Washington’s. Perhaps, from Washington’s point of view, the global ambitions of American tech firms are no longer tenable if they clash with our values and interests.

What might that mean? Western tech firms have just shown that they can choose sides, voluntarily leaving Russia to either show solidarity with Ukraine or to not violate their principles by censoring their content. Meta and Elon Musk are now heroes in Ukraine; the former for permitting users to call for the death of Putin and Russians; the latter for deploying his StarLink platform to ensure Ukraine stays online.

But harder trade-offs beckon: Should Apple and Tesla give up their Chinese factories? Should America force Chinese tech firms like TikTok from its shores? Having set the precedent in Russia, these are realistic scenarios that Washington might consider — and that Silicon Valley must plan for.

Zooming out, what happens when American tech priorities conflict with broader diplomatic agendas? Should the U.S. government ally with Brussels on antitrust, or stand up on behalf of U.S. tech companies? What happens when the interests of the tech sector conflict with stability in Taiwan or progress on climate change? These are essential questions that are as yet unanswered.

Meanwhile, national security planners must consider that we are once again in an era of great power war. The Ukraine conflict has surprised many with its conventionality — but it has also proven a testing ground for new tech like drones. We are also seeing a war play out in a fully online society for the first time — don’t discount the immense soft power Ukraine has yielded through social media. Would Western support be so strong without Kiev’s polished online presence (or propaganda, as one might call it)?

A year ago, I asked how tech factored into U.S. foreign policy. America is surely in a better place than it was then. Technology is rightly taking center stage in its foreign affairs and national security agendas.

But if the U.S. is to maintain its leading global role – much less avoid falling behind its rivals — it must do more than foster innovation and develop new capabilities with little more justification than “for innovation’s sake.” It must develop a doctrine that comprehensively considers how all aspects of technological statecraft — cyber, antitrust, regulatory, supply chains, basic science, standards, not to mention the role of tech companies themselves — can best serve U.S. foreign policy objectives. Failing to do so doesn’t just risk strategic muddle, but wasting perhaps America’s greatest assets: its entrepreneurial and scientific excellence. Nothing less than American power, prestige and prosperity are at stake.
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Disinformation demands a collective defense

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

When the term disinformation went mainstream after the 2016 election, it was largely in reference to state actors targeting political campaigns. Despite vigilance and much effort by government, the nature of the threat continues to shift faster than democracies can adapt. State actors, financially motivated disinformation-for-hire outfits and ideologically driven individuals are spreading disinformation that targets businesses, individuals and governments alike.

Now well into a U.S. election year and with tumultuous shifts in the geopolitical landscape underway, we anticipate an increase in disinformation campaigns targeting democratic institutions and private sector entities. With regulation stalled and limited protection from government, companies need to take on today’s threat themselves if they are to protect their ability to operate tomorrow.

In just the last two years, disinformation campaigns have caused significant damage to brand, reputation and value. In 2020, the online retailer Wayfair experienced an attempt by QAnon conspiracy theorists — who gained notoriety for targeting politicians with baseless accusations of corruption and abuse — to convince consumers that the company was trafficking children with its furniture deliveries. These ludicrous claims were ignored by many but believed by enough that they inspired calls for boycotts, attempts to manipulate the company’s stock value, posting physical locations of executives’ home and office addresses, and efforts to grind call center operations to a halt by flooding phone lines.
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More recently, disinformation campaigns have leveraged false narratives about pharmaceutical companies, driven crypto scams and coin pumping, and attempted to manipulate consumer trust in high-tech solutions, such as space technologies, electric vehicles and vaccines. In just one example, our organization, Alethea Group, conducted an investigation in 2020 in which we assessed a network operated by Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and former adviser to President Trump Steve Bannon was manipulating QAnon-related conversations in an attempt to spread election conspiracies. But the network was not just targeting elections, it was also mentioning private companies and prominent brands, including travel and hospitality, food, beverage and technology companies.

As the threat has evolved, regulations governing the digital space have not kept up, and the agencies that have historically sought to defend us against disinformation face an asymmetry that is difficult to overcome alone. A combination of legislative and bureaucratic inertia, limitations on the collection of social media data and a failure to develop new technology solutions catered to the threat have only exacerbated this asymmetry, with government entities often having insufficient resources to defend against the full threat landscape.

If organizations are unable to rely on government to defend them in the digital sphere, the private sector must lead in protecting customers, employees and financial bottom lines. By implementing strategies to catch nascent disinformation campaigns before they gain momentum, companies can mitigate malign attempts to manipulate their brands, reputations, stock prices and consumer trust.

In addition to defending against reputational harm through launching precision messaging campaigns rooted in fact, there are often opportunities to seek recourse against those launching disinformation campaigns by exposing their efforts or taking legal action. And by sharing information with the government, companies can also increase situational awareness that enables law enforcement and the intelligence community to work within authorities to act against those seeking to harm U.S. interests.

Disinformation is not only a threat to democracy; it’s a threat to our economy as well. This means that businesses and individuals — not just government agencies — have an important role to play in exposing and mitigating malign influence efforts, in protecting themselves and their economic interests, and in helping to defend our society writ large. Companies can act to protect consumers and shareholders in ways that government cannot, by working to uncover and expose the threat actors targeting them and pursuing a variety of remediation options ranging from legal action to public awareness campaigns. Indeed, our collective democratic and economic interests will depend upon it.

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Government action on tech innovation is good news for startups

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

Much has been written in this space about the Defense Department’s efforts to tap Silicon Valley’s innovation — and the steep hill tech firms have to climb to ultimately win DOD contracts and cross the “Valley of Death.” The good news is that the U.S. government has heard Silicon Valley’s pleas to cut bureaucracy and foster new ways of doing business and is taking action.

The Critical 4Cs 

Over the past year strong, bipartisan alignment has emerged between the executive and legislative branches around a set of actions aimed at closing gaps and removing barriers to success, best thought of as the “Critical 4Cs”: Culture, Contracting, Congressional Budget Cycles and Champions.

Let’s start with Champions. The American people are fortunate to have two of Silicon Valley’s greatest champions in Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Under Secretary for Research and Engineering (R&E) and (CTO) Heidi Shyu. They, along with other champions in the Pentagon, fully understand the challenge and have taken concrete steps from the top down to prime the DOD system for innovation.

For example, Hicks and her former software czar led a huge effort in 2021 to deliver DOD’s Software Modernization Strategy, which aims to better organize the Pentagon’s internal processes for adopting new software technologies across the enterprise. The strategy also produces, in effect, the formal policy “demand signal” for scaling up Silicon Valley tech across the DOD.

Hicks has also visibly empowered the CTO, her management group and the Innovation Steering Group to map the Pentagon’s innovation efforts, examine its alignment and acquisition practices and engage honestly with — and incorporate the views of — industry’s smaller tech stakeholders as moving forward. DOD has also established new programs to recruit and grow tech talent and thereby attract and retain a greater pool of defense tech champions. This gets at another key “4C”: building a tech savvy — and tech driven — culture within the DOD.
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Under Shyu, an experienced senior procurement and acquisition executive who holds degrees in math and engineering, the Pentagon has been launching a raft of efforts to help it “go faster.” As head of Research and Engineering, Shyu helps coordinate the hundreds of innovation offices and efforts across the Defense Department. She’s been taking concrete action to strengthen the position of small tech innovators and reduce barriers to working with DOD.

Among them is a Technology Vision released in February, which prioritizes the Pentagon’s key focus areas such as Trusted AI, Space, Advanced Computing and Software. Under Secretary Shyu has also asked Congress for authority to assist small innovators through an expanded Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grants process to mature experimental programs and increase the odds that they become programs of record. This is one of many efforts underway aimed at easing the systemic “contracting C” barriers to promising programs.

In the last “C,” Congressional budget, the Biden administration proposed in its FY2023 budget a 9.5% increase over the FY22 funding level for the Defense Department’s Research, Development, Technology and Engineering. If adopted by Congress, it would represent a significant effort to advance modernization and tech adoption, building on the measures passed by Congress in the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and FY22 Budget

The FY22 legislation specifically authorized and funded DOD’s plans to reduce barriers to tech adoption and provided additional funding for software and SBIR programs. For example, the FY22 NDAA Section 833 directed DOD to develop a pilot program to implement unique acquisition mechanisms for emerging technologies. Meanwhile, Section 834 mandated accelerated procurement and fielding of advanced tech — both intended to address speed and reduce the pain of the Contracting “C” as funding levels were envisioned to rise in FY23.

Congressional members and staffers continue to hear from Silicon Valley startups about the lack of planned funding at the end of SBIR funding cycles, but Congress’s challenge, they say, is balancing rapid innovation success with oversight and accountability for such taxpayer funding. They don’t write blank checks. This is why Under Secretary Shyu’s request to Congress to expand the SBIR cycle is important.

Unintended consequences

As Congress and the Pentagon continue to address the “4C” challenges, they must avoid creating new ones. For example, when broader spending and authorities for software and new tech were passed, Congress created new reporting requirements to account for how the money was being used, in some cases, disincentivizing innovation. As one DOD program executive put it, “Now I must provide quarterly quantitative and qualitative reports on progress to include comparisons of similar programs. Thanks, but I’ll stick with [traditional programs] and focus on delivering products instead of reports.” New reporting burdens can eclipse the intent and create cultural antibodies to doing new things among well-respected yet overworked program executives. There has to be a balance between “oversight” and “free for all.” Watch this space.

Gaps remain

A recent report from the consultancy firm Mitre outlined why simply throwing more money and expanding latitude in the SBIR grants process is an incomplete solution to solving the problem of rapid tech adoption. In a nutshell, all defense acquisition is rooted in the formal requirements process, the lengthy Pentagon process that articulates what the military needs and why, and its related acquisition and budget processes that establish how much it can buy, how and when. If a particular new technology isn’t in that requirements and budget process, it would be difficult for the Pentagon to fund and adopt it.

The current processes often pit program executives and contracting officers against the innovation teams and end users who want advanced tech now — a dynamic that makes it easier to keep the status quo. In order to make tech adoption a reality, these formal processes need an overhaul to keep progress moving in the right direction. It’s one thing to develop or test out new tech, it’s another thing to deem it a hard requirement and get it into the formal buying cycle to scale it across the world’s largest, most complex fighting force and its networks.

Authorization to Operate (ATO) presents a substantial hurdle for startups and end users alike. If a company’s software or hardware is deemed secure on one Army network, why isn’t it secure on another? Often firms must go through separate approval processes for each office, branch, or Pentagon agency. This could be streamlined without making tech adoption itself a security vulnerability, including by more effectively leveraging cloud resources. Clearly more work is needed to address ATO challenges if new tech is to be scaled at the speeds and levels Pentagon leadership desires.

The U.S. government clearly recognizes the serious national security and financial imperatives for rapidly adopting Silicon Valley’s most innovative and applicable commercial/dual-use solutions. But as the adage goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and continued efforts will be needed to close gaps and mitigate unintended consequences. Startups need to continue to actively engage with the Pentagon and Congress to communicate specific examples of their “pain points” and offer constructive ideas, while at the same time adjusting to a business, compliance and contracting culture vastly different from the Valley. By working together toward success, the Pentagon and Silicon Valley are truly capable of anything, including defending the free world against the worst existential threats.

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Digital diplomacy gets a reboot

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

It should come as no surprise that government bureaucracies move slowly. After all, over a year into its term, the Biden administration has successfully filled fewer than half of its key positions a year. But that just makes this week’s launch of the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (CDP), just six months after it was announced, seem positively nimble by comparison.

It will have to be if it is to succeed. “The United States is the most technologically advanced country on Earth,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech announcing the bureau last year at the Foreign Service Institute. “The State Department should be empowered by that strength.”

Yet until now technology has been, if not an afterthought, certainly not front and center of American diplomacy. Despite the establishment of a cyber office in 2011 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the office was downgraded during the Trump administration.

No longer. “The last few years have made evident how vital cybersecurity and digital policy are to America’s national security,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote State Department staff in an email on Monday provided to TechCrunch. “We’re in a contest over the rules, infrastructure and standards that will define our digital future.”
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With that in mind, several clear policy goals of the new bureau have emerged. Some are quite expansive, like reducing national security risks from cyber activity and emerging technology and ensuring U.S. leadership in the global technology competition.

Other objectives, like setting technical standards in international fora and defending an open, intraoperative internet in spite of the actions of authoritarian countries like China and Russia, are more concrete and defined. I was encouraged to see Secretary Blinken tweet out his support last week for Doreen Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy to lead the International Telecommunications Union, one of the main intergovernmental organizations regulating the global internet.

But first, the State Department itself needs an update. Simply put, the State Department is operationally out of date, which is why the bureau’s first imperative, one official tells me, is to modernize the Foreign Service to allow diplomats to better connect with the digital global environment. That might mean experimenting with new tech like Zoom to be present in places diplomats can’t be physically, or more creative use of social media. Using the metric of how many embassies or consulates you have in a country as a sign of your presence is antiquated now, the official notes. “The establishment of the CDP bureau is a key piece of Secretary Blinken’s plans to build a State Department ready to meet the tests of the 21st century,” according to a State Department spokesperson.

Beyond that, the bureau is still in formation, but in conversations with current and former State department officials and outside experts, I’ve learned what officials hope to get out of the bureau.

CDP will have three policy buckets: international cyber security, digital policy and digital freedom. Each roughly corresponds to preexisting competencies: the cyber coordinator office (created back in 2011), the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, respectively. It will be run by a yet-to-be-confirmed ambassador-at-large; in the meantime, career diplomat Jennifer Bachus will run the team as principal deputy assistant secretary.

While the new bureau will deal with the day-to-day, a separate special envoy position will also be created to focus on more long-term issues around emerging and critical technologies like AI, quantum and biotechnology.

Missing in action no more?

The “decision to stand up a new bureau is an indicator of how seriously [the Biden administration] see these threats of the need to have more thought leadership and diplomatic capacity,” Eileen Donahoe, a former U.S. ambassador who now runs the Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator, tells me.

One sign of that seriousness is that both offices will, for at least a year, report directly to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the department’s number two official. This is a good thing, says Chris Painter, who was the Obama administration’s top diplomat on cyber issues. Sherman, he says, has a long history with cyber issues and worked to integrate technology issues at regional bureaus she ran earlier in her career.

Secretary Blinken and Deputy Secretary Sherman visit the new Cyberspace and Digital Policy Bureau. Image Credits: U.S. State Deparment/Ron Przysucha

CDP will need that high-level support. The State Department is playing catch up, I’m told, and attempting to bring its expertise — diplomacy and knowledge of international relations — to more technical policymakers at the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and other agencies. The implication is clear: State’s voice has been missing in the interagency process and opportunities have been missed both at home and abroad.

For example, as Nate Picarsic and Emily de la Bruyère have written, the U.S. has been largely absent from the politics of the intergovernmental organizations that are quietly setting the global standards of technology. As a result the U.S. has ceded ground to others, especially Russia and China, but even the European Union, with massive implications for who controls the future of technology.

And as new international entities emerge, like the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council or the Quad’s technology working group, the State Department needs to be able to coordinate and advise. Under the Trump administration, you “had good, talented people,” working these issues, Painter tells me, “but no one at the leadership level [able] both to deal with the White House and senior counterparts and foreign counterparts. [The new bureau] helps fill that gap.”

“This is a real down payment by the department,” says Yll Bajraktari, a former national security official who is now the CEO of Special Competitive Studies Project, an AI advocacy group. “Integrating the department’s capacity for cybersecurity, digital infrastructure and governance issues including internet freedom will help create a coherent diplomatic strategy.”

Still loading…

I’m struck by several obstacles the new bureau will face, however. Some are institutional.

For example, there are a myriad of challenges out there, says Painter, from writing new cyber norms to countering state action to promoting human rights issues. “These issues are being debated in almost every fora. That means we have to be there, actively planning, and that takes people and attention.” Simply staffing the bureau with enough qualified people to handle all these issues will be a lift.

Some policy advocates I spoke with fear that the new bureau may end up focused on cyber issues to the detriment of issues like democracy and human rights. If personnel is policy, the proof will be in how the State Department prioritizes staffing the new bureau — and who the ambassador-at-large will be (when asked, a State Department official told me that there will be new staff positions covering all policy areas).

The new bureau also has to “mainstream these issues across the department,” Painter adds, but that will take time. Secretary Blinken wants the department to think and act differently but how willing will a recently demoralized foreign service be to embrace the change that is necessary to make policy on highly technical subjects many may not be familiar with? Diplomats will have to learn how to assert themselves on technological issues in the interagency process with departments like Defense and Homeland Security with far greater experience on these issues. “We have to be patient as State now builds expertise,” Bajraktari says.

Other challenges are more strategic. I’ve not been shy about calling for the use of technology in U.S. foreign policy and was thrilled when the U.S. slammed Russia with export controls in response to its invasion of Ukraine. If CDP is to succeed, it has to be allowed to influence policy outside the narrow remit of cyber treaties and technical policy (as important as they are).

“You can’t put cyber in a box,” Painter tells me. “It has to be part of all the tools we have.” After all, he notes, we don’t have a cyber problem with Russia and China but a Russia problem and a China problem full stop.

Still other challenges combine the institutional and policy. “What’s really needed is understanding the interconnectivity between all of these issues,” says Donahoe, who advised those that created the new bureau. She points to the fact that freedom of speech, what we once thought of as a human rights issue, has become a weapon when used as disinformation. State will also have to manage conflicting priorities across agencies — for example, will it side with Commerce officials who want to back American tech companies or antitrust officials who want to work with the EU to neuter them?

Meanwhile, so many aspects of tech, from cybercrime to cybersecurity norms, have yet to be fleshed out internationally. Can Washington forge agreement among its allies over what a democratic internet looks like? Does the U.S. have the diplomatic and bureaucratic skill to set norms in the face of China and Russia’s efforts to set the agenda themselves? Experts wondered if Russia would launch a cyber war on the West in response to its support for Ukraine, but we still have no idea what that even means.

As authoritarians increasingly use technology to build up dictatorships and undermine democracy, it is good that American diplomats are thinking seriously about how technology fits into American diplomacy and its efforts to bolster democracy around the world. These are difficult issues that require an all-of-government approach. Let’s hope the State Department learns quickly.

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It’s time to address the role of New Space firms in global security

The geopolitics of space is nothing new. Cold War rivalry spurred the Space Race, and space has stayed in the purview of national competition ever since. From the control of GPS to support military decision-making to satellite-based communications or precise imagery to assist humanitarian organizations and refugee flows in high-risk countries, governments have a clear and present interest in what happens in outer space. More recently, space has emerged as a battlefield in global security.

Yet despite this precedent, highly specialized companies are increasingly shaping the geopolitics of space. First, as governments increasingly depend on private capabilities to act in space, space companies have obtained an unprecedented level of influence over the development of certain details and capabilities in national space operations. For the first time, strategic competition over space is as much based on the private as the public sector. And as independent actors, New Space firms have a much more important presence in outer space. By launching their own private equipment, they have changed the way global security in, from, and to space has been long understood.  Space, in short, is no longer only about governments.

Near equals?

That doesn’t mean New Space companies have entirely displaced governments from space; public investments in space are still higher than the private ones. For example, from 2008 to 2017 government-led funding grew by 44% and the private sector accounted for a lower share of space launches. Five years later, the figures are quite similar.

Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs ProjectBut the nature of how private firms work in space is also changing. Space-specialized companies continue to support government projects as legacy firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon did. However, New Space firms have gained a higher level of autonomy and decision-making with respect to government.

In the 1980s there was limited access to government projects for the commercial market in satellite-powered remote sensing. However, once the intelligence community started to need high-resolution imagery — for example,  to monitor military forces movements across the planet — government limitations fueled the opening of a new market for specialized private space companies to develop these products.

As New Space firms provide a high level of specialization in their services portfolio, the relationship between governments and private firms became less one of “prime contractors,” and more of a public-private partnership of near equals. Before, NASA defined “what” and “how” capabilities should be developed; now, the government defines the goal (the “what”) and top-level requirements, while leaving the details of how to do it to industry.

As a result, governments increasingly rely on space specialized firms not just to provide tailored responses to pressing demands, but to help them be at the forefront of global strategic competition. This is the case of the European Union’s CASSINI Space Investment Fund of at least $1 billion for startups, and the Chinese government’s D60 decision in 2014 to enable large private investment in space companies. Until then, the Chinese market was restricted to two state-owned enterprises (CASIC and CASC). But since 2014, the space industry has grown exponentially — see Galactic Energy or Spacety —  exporting its wares to third countries under the Digital Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa, or attracting foreign talented workforce, as MinoSpace does.

This cycle has become a virtuous one for New Space firms: In order to remain competitive in space, governments have become dependent on some of their services and products. Interstate politics has made way for space firms to have a greater influence in the way governments compete with each other.

The crowded frontier

Space firms are also shaping the geopolitics of space by their mere presence, itself a novelty. For example, the Chinese government stated that its space station was forced to activate preventive collision avoidance control when it encountered StarLink satellites. Also, NASA postponed a spacewalk from the International Space Station over concerns about space debris, although it is not that easy to distinguish debris produced by private and public actors.

The rise in New Space firms acting autonomously in outer space has shed light on some geopolitical vacuums that have not been addressed until now. Let’s think about the risks that may arise for democratic countries if a privately led space capability is “kidnapped” by terrorist groups, organized crime or other unlawful actors. Or the need for mutual trust between governments and private sectors upon any sort of cyberattack to a satellite that manages sensitive data for people’s protection and welfare.

Without common rules between public and private stakeholders, policy vacuums will endure. Simply put, the unprecedented pace at which these firms have taken flight means existing multilateral fora have not created yet the necessary mechanisms to address these pressing challenges. This should be of interest for countries supporting democratic principles, because in addition to the traditional challenges of space, there are new issues where private firms have a greater role and these need to be addressed from a democratic perspective.

It is undoubtedly clear that New Space companies are reshaping the global competition over outer space. They are influencing the way governments interact and compete with other countries, and they also have a greater, autonomous presence in outer space by creating facts “in the air.”

With so many actors in space, we can no longer afford to operate without common understanding and rules between them. There is now a pressing need to set up global multistakeholder dialogues to address the New Space age, its global security implications and the needs and demands of individual and emerging players, be they countries or private firms.

Governments will continue having a major role in the decision-making of global norms, as they are the core of political representation. However, the new age of space cooperation is already here; the time to create new norms and protocols is now.
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Artificial intelligence is already upending geopolitics

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

Geopolitical actors have always used technology to further their goals. Unlike other technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) is far more than a mere tool. We do not want to anthropomorphize AI or suggest that it has intentions of its own. It is not — yet — a moral agent. But it is fast becoming a primary determinant of our collective destiny. We believe that because of AI’s unique characteristics — and its impact on other fields, from biotechnologies to nanotechnologies — it is already threatening the foundations of global peace and security.

The rapid rate of AI technological development, paired with the breadth of new applications (the global AI market size is expected to grow more than ninefold from 2020 to 2028) means AI systems are being widely deployed without sufficient legal oversight or full consideration of their ethical impacts. This gap, often referred to as the pacing problem, has left legislatures and executive branches simply unable to cope.

After all, the impacts of new technologies are often hard to foresee. Smartphones and social media were embedded in daily life long before we fully appreciated their potential for misuse. Likewise, it took time to realize the implications of facial recognition technology for privacy and human rights violations.

Some countries will deploy AI to manipulate public opinion by determining what information people see and by using surveillance to curtail freedom of expression.
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Looking further ahead, we have little idea which challenges currently being researched will lead to innovations and how those innovations will interact with each other and the wider environment.

These problems are especially acute with AI, as the means by which learning algorithms arrive at their conclusions are often inscrutable. When undesirable effects come to light, it can be difficult or impossible to determine why. Systems that constantly learn and change their behavior cannot be constantly tested and certified for safety.

AI systems can act with little or no human intervention. One need not read a science fiction novel to imagine dangerous scenarios. Autonomous systems risk undermining the principle that there should always be an agent — human or corporate — who can be held responsible for actions in the world — especially when it comes to questions of war and peace. We cannot hold systems themselves to account, and those who deploy them will argue that they are not responsible when the systems act in unpredictable ways.

In short, we believe that our societies are not prepared for AI — politically, legally or ethically. Nor is the world prepared for how AI will transform geopolitics and the ethics of international relations. We identify three ways in which this could happen.

First, developments in AI will shift the balance of power between nations. Technology has always shaped geopolitical power. In the 19th and early 20th century, the international order was based on emerging industrial capabilities — steamships, airplanes and so on. Later, control of oil and natural gas resources became more important.

All major powers are keenly aware of the potential of AI to advance their national agendas. In September 2017, Vladimir Putin told a group of schoolchildren: “whoever becomes the leader [in AI] will become the ruler of the world.” While the U.S. currently leads in AI, China’s tech companies are progressing rapidly and are arguably superior in the development and application of specific areas of research such as facial recognition software.

Domination of AI by major powers will exacerbate existing structural inequalities and contribute to new forms of inequity. Countries that already lack access to the internet and are dependent upon the largesse of wealthier nations will be left far behind. AI-powered automation will transform employment patterns in ways that advantage some national economies relative to others.

Second, AI will empower a new set of geopolitical players beyond nation states. In some ways, leading companies in digital technology are already more powerful than many nations. As French President Emmanuel Macron asked in March 2019: “Who can claim to be sovereign, on their own, in the face of the digital giants?”

The recent invasion of Ukraine provides an example. National governments responded by imposing economic sanctions on the Russian Federation. But arguably at least as impactful were the decisions of companies such as IBM, Dell, Meta, Apple and Alphabet to cease their operations in the country.

Similarly, when Ukraine feared that the invasion would disrupt its internet access, it appealed for assistance not to a friendly government but to tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk responded by turning on his Starlink satellite internet service in Ukraine and delivering receivers, enabling the country to continue to communicate.

The digital oligopoly, with access to large and growing databases that serve as the fuel for machine learning algorithms, is fast becoming an AI oligopoly. Given their vast wealth, leading corporations in the U.S. and China can either develop new applications or acquire smaller companies that invent promising tools. Machine learning systems might also be helpful to the AI oligopoly in circumventing national regulations.

Third, AI will open possibilities for new forms of conflict. These range from influencing public opinion and election results in other countries through fake media and manipulated social media postings, to interfering with the operation of other countries’ critical infrastructure — such as power, transportation or communications.

Such forms of conflict will prove hard to manage prompting a complete rethink of arms control instruments not suited to grapple with weapons of coercion. Current arms control negotiations need the adversaries to clearly perceive each other’s capabilities and their military necessity, but while nuclear bombs, for example, are limited in their development and application, almost anything is possible with AI, as capabilities can develop both quickly and opaquely.

Without enforceable treaties restricting their deployment, autonomous weapons systems assembled from off-the-shelf components will eventually be available to terrorists and other non-state actors. There also exists a significant likelihood that poorly understood autonomous weapon systems might unintentionally initiate conflicts or escalate existing hostilities.

The only way to mitigate AI’s geopolitical risks and provide the agile and comprehensive oversight it will require, is through open dialogue about its benefits, limitations and complexities. The G20 is a potential venue, or a new international governance mechanism could be created to involve the private sector and other key stakeholders.

It is widely recognized that international security, economic prosperity, the public good and human well-being depend on managing the proliferation of deadly weapon systems and climate change. We believe they will increasingly depend at least as much on our collective ability to shape the development and trajectory of AI and of other emerging technologies.
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Who really benefits from digital development?

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

Like almost every sector, international development has attracted the attention of technologists who believe they can code away problems — and development practitioners have encouraged them. From USAID to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations, digital development programs are proliferating. While some initiatives are quite useful, there are reasons to think they are not as effective as the hype would have us believe; in some cases, they are actively harmful.

Digital development holds some promise: Providing poor people with digital products and services will undoubtedly lift some out of poverty. But while digital development is often portrayed as an unmitigated good, its costs are often ignored. Data is now the world’s most valuable commodity, and the largest sources of untapped data are the 3 billion people who are not yet connected to the internet. When Western development actors connect them with digital services, they are also putting their privacy and data at the mercy of tech companies eager to monetize them. The contradiction at the heart of digital development is that initiatives that ostensibly aim to reduce poverty also enrich tech companies and enable them to generate profits from marginalized populations’ data.

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Some might consider this an acceptable tradeoff for lifting people out of poverty. But generating data from every aspect of their lives may reduce the effectiveness of development initiatives and lock others into poverty by creating data-based justifications for discrimination and by helping Big Tech undercut local businesses.

Digital financial services offer a window into this dynamic. Small loans, or “microloans,” that are often disbursed through mobile money accounts, have become a popular method of providing capital to people in poverty. Although Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work on microloans, recent evidence has shown that microloans do not reduce poverty.

Numerous randomized controlled trials have found that across countries and continents microloans have little effect on poverty, and may simply substitute for borrowing from local banks and community members. In several villages in Bangladesh, microloans even increased indebtedness in vulnerable communities, and caused some to lose their land.

Nevertheless, digital financial services are booming because they generate fees, investment opportunities and valuable data about people’s consumption habits. Microcredit is now a $60 billion industry that provides loans to over 200 million people. Investors in the United States and China have more than doubled their stakes in digital financial services companies in Africa, and investments in digital financial services now represent 60% of total investment in African tech companies.

Despite the predictions of tech evangelists, there has been no sign that increased investment in digital financial services leads to corresponding reductions in poverty. On the contrary, financial services data has been used to assess individuals’ creditworthiness, exacerbating economic exclusion by denying people in poverty access to credit based on flawed algorithmic decision making. Meanwhile, more effective financial services solutions like cash transfers have received fewer resources, as they do not result in lucrative interest payments.

It’s not just digital financial services that have significant drawbacks. Recently, advocates of digital development have promoted the adoption of digital identification as a means of connecting people to government services. The largest and most lauded such effort is India’s digital identity system — named Aadhaar, or “foundation” in Hindi — which assigns people a digital identity by recording their fingerprints and eye scans. Aadhaar has been used to assign digital identities to more than 1.2 billion Indians since 2009.

Among Aadhaar’s most prominent proponents is Bill Gates, who has provided funding to the World Bank to replicate the program in other countries. Gates has called Aadhaar “an incredible asset” that “in itself doesn’t pose any privacy issue” and is something that has “never been done by any government before, not even in a rich country.”

But Gates is wrong: Aadhaar has excluded millions of people from government services in India. Enrolling in Aadhaar requires proof of identity and proof of address, so it is no surprise that government records show 99.97% of Aadhaar enrollees already have adequate identification. Even for those few who gain proof of identification for the first time through Aadhaar, digital identity can be unreliable in a country where stable internet access is often hard to come by. Unfortunately, Aadhaar’s databases are notoriously shoddy — “fingerprint authentication error” is rampant, with up to 30% of people unable to use their fingerprints to verify their identity due to faulty tech. As a result of these flaws in the Aadhaar system, over 1 million children have been denied admission to school and 1.5 million people have lost access to their government benefits in India.

Aadhaar also generates large amounts of valuable data for tech companies in India by allowing firms to track individuals’ financial activity through their unique identification numbers and sell it to third parties, who then craft targeted ads or use the data to screen individuals’ eligibility for insurance and loans. In 2018, India’s Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the private sector to sell Aadhaar data, but India’s central government quickly circumvented the decision with a revised law. As privacy activist Usha Ramanathan put it: “data is the new gold and Aadhaar is the tool to get it.”

As Aadhaar so amply demonstrates, there are often not enough guardrails to protect users of digital development initiatives. Most of the world’s poorest countries have no data protection or privacy laws, leaving their citizens vulnerable to surveillance and data extraction by multinational corporations. Digital development practitioners argue that they can still conduct their work ethically in these countries by adhering to best practices, such as the Principles for Digital Development, which emphasize privacy. This misses the underlying dynamic at play: a core tenet of digital development is “streamlining regulations for digital business,” which advantages multinationals in countries that lack adequate protections for local firms.

To make matters worse, Big Tech has consistently thwarted efforts to enact more thorough data protection laws around the world. For instance, as Kenya negotiates a free trade agreement with the U.S. Amazon and Google have lobbied for the U.S. government to insert measures that would liberalize cross-border data flows in direct violation of Kenya’s 2019 data protection law. Such a move would allow Amazon and Google to outcompete local firms in the competition to analyze individuals’ financial data for new business opportunities. Despite Kenyan attempts to maintain its requirement that personal data be stored locally, the Biden administration has backed these companies, stalling the trade deal until Kenya accedes to Big Tech’s demands.

Without adequate data protection and measures that require data minimization, users of digital development programs are at risk. Just last week, the Red Cross revealed that it had been hacked and that the confidential information of half a million vulnerable people had been stolen.

Tech boosters can claim many successes, but their triumphalism cannot substitute for hard evidence and cannot justify putting the preferences of multinationals above those of local communities. The fundamental reality is that digital services alone will not solve global poverty, and they too often lead to accidental harms. If tech leaders really wanted to end global poverty, they might consider a more direct path — redistributing less than half of their annual profits would provide the $200 billion a year over 20 years that is needed to eradicate global poverty. Digital development practitioners should advocate for redistributing the earnings of technology companies, not magnifying them.

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The rise of defense tech is bringing Silicon Valley back to its roots

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

The timeless quest for national competitive advantage has accelerated with globalization. During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. fought an ideological and a military race, but never one over consumer products: No American was interested in buying a Soviet toaster.

Now, the lines are blurred; countries are fighting across their entire economies and every domain of warfare for advantage. Technological supremacy in consumer and enterprise products feeds directly into the great power race for air, land, sea, space and cyber.

Startup founders and engineers are increasingly recognizing their role in this fight, as well. These people are not George W. Bush-style jingoists, but they do want to support liberal democracy and make sure people on the frontlines have the best tools to do their jobs.

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That’s a major shift from the last several decades when antiwar sentiment in the Bay Area that originated in the protests over the Vietnam War intensified into antiwar protests against the wars in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq. Despite some high-profile protests against working on national security contracts in recent years, we are now seeing a return to Silicon Valley’s original culture of pioneering defense tech to protect the American homeland and its allies from adversaries. Indeed, more and more people want to work exclusively with the Pentagon and our allies on defense tech, particularly as confronting the rise of China has become one of the few truly bipartisan positions in a polarized Washington.

For engineers diving into defense tech, the challenges and opportunities in every domain are extensive. In the air, China is believed to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile — a technology that the United States is considered years away from obtaining based on intelligence estimates. Given the speed of its travel and the inability of sensors to detect it, a hypersonic missile would render much of America’s current air defense systems ineffective.

We’re also seeing the emergence of an entirely new air threat: Swarms of cheap and violent drones that can be deployed rapidly with nary a human operator in sight. U.S. general Frank McKenzie recently dubbed these “Costco drones” after the warehouse retailer, and we’re likely to see countries with tiny defense budgets capable of overwhelming well-equipped U.S. forces.

Similarly at sea, we’re seeing a shift from large and expensive aircraft carriers manned by thousands of sailors to small, cheap, and autonomous vessels. Governments (or non-state actors) can now disrupt critical sea trade lanes in ways that are very difficult to defend against. Meanwhile, beneath the waters, there is a growing capability for adversaries to tap into and disrupt undersea internet cables that carry a growing bulk of the global economy.

In space, Russia just a few weeks ago tested a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapon that destroys individual satellites. Such an attack could annihilate GPS and global communications (and the commerce, transportation, and logistics that depends on them), as well as potentially render much of near-earth space unusable for satellites due to the resulting debris. These weapons are hard to detect and even harder to stop with existing defense technologies.

Finally, in the cyber domain, despite tens of billions of dollars flooding into the cybersecurity sector over the past decade, companies and governments remain extraordinarily vulnerable to ransom and espionage with large-scale denial of service and information exfiltration initiatives. A year after the gargantuan SolarWinds hack, we are no closer to preventing or defending against state-directed cyber warfare.

All of these problems across all of these domains remain wide open, and the United States has the most to lose — economically, politically and militarily — if it fails to confront them.

The upshot is that complex and tough challenges are precisely the kinds of problems that top engineers and startup founders want to work on. There is a growing chorus of criticism — even from senior civilian defense officials — against Washington bureaucrats just continuing to do business as usual despite the increasingly mounting evidence that our defenses are ill-equipped for the challenges posed by our adversaries.

In today’s defense world, we have met the enemy and he is ourselves: startups are immediately stymied by the Pentagon’s antiquated procurement systems. We need to immediately get around this bureaucracy and uncomfortably displace the very comfortable, entitled and entrenched monopolies and oligopolies who don’t have the best technologies but do have the best lobbyists. We’ve got to get the big “primes” — as the country’s leading defense contractors are known — out of the way. We would never send our once-great but now trailing, slow-moving, least competitive athletes to represent America in fierce competition in the Olympics. It would make us sure losers. So why are we sitting idly, allowing this to happen in the critical arena of defense?

The Defense Department has put in place a variety of programs to bring on board startups. These programs are well-intentioned, but they miss the point: The Pentagon must throw out its procurement playbook and rebuild its defenses for the weapons our enemies actually use today. We live in a world where an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which costs upwards of $100 million per unit or more, can be outmaneuvered by “Costco drones.” America’s long-time defense superiority has led countries to innovate asymmetrically — and now they are pulling ahead.

The good news is that competing asymmetrically is precisely what Silicon Valley and startup founders do every day. Their scrappy ambitions and scarce resources means they repeatedly do more with less. They go up against entrenched incumbents, identify their weaknesses, and exploit them relentlessly to create competitive advantage. We have the technology and increasingly the know-how and the people ready to bolster America’s defense. Now we just need the Pentagon to start demanding more of itself, and to be willing to award large contracts to the most competitively advantaged emerging American startups.

While change at the Pentagon is paramount, beyond America, there is an opportunity to help liberal democracies globally with their defenses as well. In Europe, there is an incredible wealth of talent and available technologies that could be applied to the continent’s defense. Yet, its defense systems are a technological Tower of Babel with significant interoperability challenges. Streamlining defense standards for next-generation technologies wouldn’t help just the United States, but many of our allies as well.

America today faces the greatest challenge to our competitive advantages in recent memory, with advantages eroding across all domains of warfare and in many economic sectors. Adversaries are poking ever more aggressively for weaknesses to exacerbate and exploit. But at its heart, America’s values and influence still offers us immense soft power: an openness to new ideas, to new people, and to new opportunities. Defending our open values against the encroaching authoritarianism of antagonists like China and Russia isn’t optional. Defense tech is the next big sector for Silicon Valley if for no other reason than every other sector will rely on the United States to secure peace in the years ahead.

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Reigniting the Pentagon and Silicon Valley partnership

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

On November 15, 2021 Russia launched an anti-satellite missile into low-earth orbit without warning, successfully destroying a Russian satellite. Projectile debris from this event not only endangered the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but also could cause severe damage to satellites that support critical infrastructure here on Earth, such as GPS and power grids, for many years to come.

Just one month prior, China launched a hypersonic missile that circled the Earth and would be impossible to defend against with current technology.

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These events are a wake-up call: The United States’ technological leadership is not assured, and the global standards we developed and maintained with our partners and allies are being rewritten, as new technological advancements give rise to new threats to our nation’s security.

But these new threats are not insurmountable. In fact, these events should serve as a clarion call for entrepreneurs and investors at the forefront of emerging technology domains, including artificial intelligence, space, cybersecurity and autonomous systems.

To meet the rising challenges posed by asymmetric and cyber warfare, we need to work together – Pentagon, academia, and industry – as we did more than 60 years ago to build Silicon Valley and our nation’s technological leadership of today. Government investments helped to create the internet and semiconductors, as well as map the human genome.

I came to the Department of Defense after 30 years in the commercial technology sector to help rebuild the ties that underwrote much of our country’s economic strength and global leadership over the past half century.

Why rekindle the DoD-Silicon Valley connection?

The DoD is actively pursuing a technology modernization agenda that not only reflects the changing nature of warfare but also engenders a series of necessary business process reforms. For example, in commercial space, companies are already deploying small satellites to provide more ubiquitous internet access and pioneer rapid launch capability to deliver payloads to various geospatial layers; self-driving cars are providing transportation options; swarming drones are surveilling oil pipelines and inspecting commercial buildings and infrastructure.

These innovations are all dual-use technologies, meaning they have military applications as well. Networking these solutions together is supported by global cloud options that are cost-effective, secure and scalable. Just like companies do, the military needs to harness the insights contained in voluminous data to generate predictive capabilities through AI and machine learning that yield faster and better decision-making.

Business process reforms are equally important to improving our defense posture. Most of the DoD’s business processes were established in the 1960s and focused on building large weapons platforms such as tanks, ships and planes. Rapid advancements in the commercial sector, which promise to enhance our military’s technological edge, mean that the Pentagon now needs to buy many more technologies that complement the large weapons platforms we continue to buy.

It’s clear the coming decade will be one characterized by intense competition among nations for preeminence in technology. For an increasing number of commercial vendors, this will represent an unprecedented opportunity to tackle complex problems together with the Defense Department.

For instance, with assets in air, space, undersea, on land and in cyberspace, the national security apparatus is effectively the largest collection of sensors in the world. To date, however, these sensors are not designed to seamlessly integrate; rather, they are typically built and operated in silos, making it challenging to implement updates and develop a common operating picture. Building an Internet of Things in space—a global sensor network  – would provide real-time situational awareness, a resilient communications infrastructure as a backbone for operational decisions— and the basis for an autonomous force of sea, land, air and space systems that are small, numerous and agile.

These systems will generate immense amounts of data requiring increased storage, management and analytics, and technology modernization means building better tools to collect information, analyze it, understand it, and make better decisions in the interest of national security. It will also involve more sophisticated protection from cyber vulnerabilities.The physical manifestation of these new capabilities will require greener energy use.

Commercial companies are developing these technologies today, and the DoD must increase its capacity to quickly assess and efficiently procure these solutions — enhancing our national security and driving commercial prosperity. Executing this vision means more companies than ever before can participate in a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity that likewise enhances national security in the 21st Century.

Defense Innovation Unit: DoD’s startup

To deliver the best technology to our military, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter recognized the need to break down institutional barriers and inject fresh ideas, technologies, and methodologies from the commercial sector. In 2015, he announced the opening of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to rebuild this connection. DIU was designed to bring innovative and faster contracting mechanisms to bear, making it easier, more desirable and more profitable to do business with the DoD.

At DIU we’ve already seen how powerful this collaboration can be, from providing ongoing investment at key points of hardware and software lifecycles, uninterrupted access to testing facilities, and showing commercial companies a path to linear growth in the defense sector. This collaboration can accelerate a product’s development or stimulate a company’s growth, showing investors access to new markets.

But maintaining U.S. leadership in key technologies requires changing the 60-year-old acquisition system. DoD is no longer the first mover, the primary investor, or market maker for many technologies today. DoD needs to become a fast follower, adapting and integrating commercial technology not developed by the DoD, to solve defense problems. To do this, DIU is advocating action in three areas:

  1. Solving problems directly with available commercial solutions instead of being bound by defense-specified requirements for custom military solutions
  2. Streamlining acquisitions, moving at commercial speed, and scaling opportunities
  3. Building flexibility into the budgeting process, which today takes up to three years to program and spend a dollar for defense needs

These three areas may seem obvious but overcoming long-established processes in defense planning and Congressional approval is not easy.  And ensuring we can make the sound business case to technology firms of supporting work in national security is essential since there are large markets to serve outside of defense

Accelerating the pace of change and removing barriers cannot be done solely inside the DoD or with a select few commercial companies participating. We need all sides of the triangle of business, academia and government actively engaged, providing different ideas and approaches to accelerate our pace of modernization. Rebuilding the connection between DoD and commercial industry — from exchanging talent, acquiring products, having open communications on key issues — is critical.

DoD leadership recognizes that we are living through a technological moment unlike any other in our nation’s history. DIU has a unique and important role to play in bringing commercial technology and methodologies to modernize both critical parts of the military’s infrastructure. Together, like we have done in the past with the birth of Silicon Valley, we can ensure a secure and prosperous future for our nation.

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How the conflict in Ukraine threatens US cybersecurity

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

As Russian troops stand poised to yet again invade Ukraine, much attention has been focused in recent days on how to avoid escalation of the conflict. Recent (and likely ongoing) escalations in cyberattacks on Ukraine suggest that this conflict will be unfortunately severe in the digital domain. And unlike a ground invasion, the U.S. government has warned that the digital conflict zone may expand to include the United States, as well. Years of Russian cyber probing and “preparing the environment” could well culminate in significant and potentially destructive attacks against private-sector American interests in the coming weeks and months.

If this level of vulnerability feels intolerable, good — it should. But how did we get here? And what are the moves needed to avoid disaster? To start, it’s critical to understand how President Vladimir Putin has experimented with 21st Century technical methods to contribute to achieving his longstanding vision for Russia.

Past as cyber prologue

Russia’s motives are conventional enough. In April 2005, Putin called the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and “a genuine tragedy…for the Russian people.” This core belief has guided many of Russia’s actions since. Today, the drums of war are unfortunately beating loudly in Europe, as Putin seeks to forcibly return more of Russia’s periphery back under formal control and push back on perceived Western encroachment.

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While there are a number of factors driving why Russia has chosen now as the time to increase its aggression against Ukraine — and assert itself in Europe more broadly — its asymmetric capabilities in areas like cyber certainly give it a broader set of tools to shape the outcomes in its favor.

Russia’s geopolitical position — with a waning population base and woeful economic situation — drives its leadership to find ways to reassert itself on the global stage. Russian leaders know they can’t compete conventionally, so they turn to more easily accessible and, as it turns out, immensely powerful and effective asymmetric tools. Their disinformation campaigns have done much to contribute to the pre-existing societal fissures here in the United States, exacerbating our fracturing politics in keeping with standard Russian intelligence practices. Indeed Russian leadership likely sees an opportunity with the West as distracted by the COVID pandemic and internal turmoil that it sometimes helps sow.

But Putin’s long embrace of asymmetrical methods means Russia has been preparing for this moment for years. There is a familiarity to these activities: old means and tools from the Soviet era that have taken on a new face through the manipulation of twenty-first-century digital tools and vulnerabilities. And in recent years, it has used Ukraine, Libya, the Central African Republic, Syria, and other contested spaces as “testing grounds” for its information operations and damaging cyber capabilities.

The bear gets prickly

Today, Russian actors have deployed a vast array of techniques for “active measures” to confuse, sow doubt, and delegitimize basic democratic institutions. The mercenaries and clandestine agents Russia is deploying into Ukraine have honed their skills in hybrid battlespaces abroad, using a mix of deception and kinetic action, deftly mixed with deniable influence operations and offensive cyber actions.

In cyberspace, Russia has graduated from its then-unprecedented 2007 cyberattack on Estonia and later NotPetya-style cyber attacks, which targeted Ukrainian utilities, ministries, banks, and journalists, which spilled over into one of the most costly cyberattacks in history to date. Russian intelligence services have been found hacking into U.S. critical infrastructure systems for some time now as well—yet, to date, without significant kinetic or deleterious impact or actions (unlike in Ukraine and elsewhere as detailed in books like Andy Greenberg’s Sandworm). They’ve tested the reactions of the United States and its Allies, learned what they can get away with, and are pressing ever further as NATO countries debate what to do about Ukraine.

In sum, Russia has done its reconnaissance and likely pre-placed tools it may want to use against countries like the United States on a rainy day. That day may soon arrive.

When war in Europe hits American networks

As Russia ramps up its aggression against Ukraine, the United States has threatened a “devastating” economic response as part of the escalatory ladder (how nations methodically raise the stakes in the hopes of deterring an adversary in a conflict) toward an ever-increasingly more dangerous and likely violent resolution. What often goes unsaid is that Russian cyber capabilities are attempts at their own form of deterrence. Those preparatory activities Russia has engaged in over the years, as noted above, would allow those cyber eggs to hatch — and the consequences to come home to roost here in America.

The U.S. government has explicitly and broadly warned that Russia may attack American private industry in response to those potentially severe U.S. sanctions. It is highly unlikely, knowing the sophistication of Russian actors in this space, that these attacks would be brazen, or even immediate. While they can be sloppy and imprecise at times (see NotPetya), their capabilities will likely allow them to meddle with our critical infrastructure and private industry via supply-chain attacks and other indirect and difficult-to-attribute means. In the interim, companies and service providers could face significant damage and deleterious downtime. If the past has been a nuisance, the near term portends potentially much greater negative economic impact as Putin and his oligarchs continue to press their longstanding agenda.

Hope remains that Russia will not continue to ramp up its aggression, and will indeed find off-ramps, avoiding these various scenarios. We should all hope that none of this will ever unfold. It is prudent however, indeed overdue at this point, that industry ensure that it takes the appropriate steps to protect itself from what we must now consider a potentially highly likely attack – doubling down on multi-factor authentication, segmenting networks, maintaining backups, gaming out crisis response plans, and closing off access to only those with real need. What is happening with Ukraine seems a world apart, but with a few clicks, the impact may end up right here at home.

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