Opinion

Cyber’s uncertain future: These radical technologies and negative trends must be overcome

The fate of the world may literally hinge on which states develop and appropriately introduce the radical technologies that are likely to disrupt cyberspace and the world. What are they, and what disruption do they pose? Here are a few, split into two categories:

Radical-leveling technologies have leapt from linear to exponential capabilities and will shape the future competition:

  1. Additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing): “Who can manufacture what” may no longer be decided by governments.
  2. Human-machine interfacing: Where will this lead intelligence collection, privacy and security?
  3. The Internet of Things' expanded attack surface: The IoT may invite a near-constant struggle between good and malicious cyberspace actors throughout our government, intelligence, defense and commercial lives.
  4. Chain algorithm (i.e., blockchain) and cryptocurrencies: We have yet to discern how blockchain technology will be integrated into both public and private networks, such as for protecting the national currency of states, and what such integration will mean for intelligence collection and effects operations.
  5. Algorithmic-driven operations: Relying on algorithms in operations may aid both our and our adversaries' operations.
  6. Data analytics: Successful application of data analytics will help reduce false positives and aid in forensics (by discerning trends better). But new ways to collect, manage and analyze data will have to be discerned.
  7. Data localization: States are likely to Balkanize cyberspace into defensive pockets to capture and protect data (rather than surrender control entirely to the cloud or to servers outside their states). Russia and China are already Balkanizing their networks; many states will follow Russia and China’s lead.
  8. New forms of encryption, including decentralized, local and private encryption: Enabled by quantum computing, new forms of encryption will make cyber operations more difficult.

Emerging technologies represent new tech — currently developed or developed within five to 10 years — that will shape the future competition:

  1. Artificial intelligence (i.e., machine learning): China has declared that it plans to be the world’s leader in AI and integrate it as much as possible into its technology and military forces and strategy. How will AI assist or thwart cyber intelligence collection, or affect the development of offensive or defensive cyberspace operations? Setting norms for AI will present new intellectual, technical and legal challenges.
  2. Quantum computing: The integration of quantum computing will assist and thwart cyber intelligence collection, as well as affect the development of offensive and defensive cyberspace operations. China’s announced 2030 goal to develop a high-performing quantum computer with decryption capability is an existential threat to Western society, as it would afford adversaries unprecedented leverage and advantage over U.S. society. Shifting to quantum-resistant algorithms and encryption present certain costs and technical challenges, and a likely long-term transition.
  3. Nanotechnology: How will life as well as state vs. state competition change if devices that can impact the environment, health care or energy efficiency are built on the scale of atoms and molecules?
  4. Neuroscience technologies — biology and cyber: We have yet to discern how biology and cyberspace will converge to afford biological levels of cybersecurity and cyber biosecurity.

The United States will also face challenging technological, political, historical, numerical and policy trends that will complicate efforts to absorb these technologies; the United States may soon have to adopt asymmetric strategies to contend with its competitors:

  1. The United States is telling itself that it is a status quo power (and that attempting domain dominance in cyberspace is somehow dangerous, wrong or imperial). The country currently suffers from “cyberspace fatigue” — a sense that our daily loss via cyberspace to ransomware, financial and proprietary theft, privacy invasion, and political influence is inevitable and inescapable.
  2. China and Russia both enjoy “asymmetry in interest.” That is, both Russia and China believe they care more about their foreign policy, national security, and cyberspace interests and activities than the United States and Americans generally do.
  3. It will soon be impossible for the United States to compete with China via numbers — even in cyberspace. Chinese forces will soon outnumber U.S. forces in every sector, including cyberspace forces.
  4. As the private sector compiles and controls unprecedented amounts of data on U.S. and non-U.S. citizens around the world, new public-private sector relationships must be devised. The private sector will have many more times the quantity of data on individuals and commercial activity than the U.S. government could ever obtain.
  5. China is now “out-cycling” the United States. The Chinese can do acquisition faster now than the United States, which means they will be able to collect on technological countermeasures and adopt counter-countermeasures to our attempts to defeat Chinese technology.
  6. The United States has yet to acknowledge explicitly that we are not so much in a “great power” competition, but instead we are in an era of the rise of authoritarian, anti-liberal democratic states. This is a much more serious problem, as, if left unacknowledged, the United States will appear as morally equivalent.
  7. The U.S. government may no longer be the lead for all complex technologies, including those involved in national security, computing, sensing or data analytics. Sad fact.
  8. We have — to date — accepted policy inferiority in cyberspace. We defend against malicious cyberspace operations, but we have been reluctant to conduct the escalation necessary to restore the norms we seek to protect.

James Van de Velde is an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He previously worked as an associate professor at the National Intelligence University and Georgetown University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy position of the U.S. government, the Defense Department or the National Intelligence University.

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