An attendee gets an airbrushed tattoo during the Black Hat conference Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Las Vegas. The annual computer security conference draws thousands of hackers and security professionals to Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, Associated Press)
Cyber attacks have opened eyes to the prospect that future wars may be waged in the shadows, relying on proxies using technological innovation to attack “soft” targets such as information networks, transportation systems, power plants, stock markets — and public confidence. We must add these new complexities to the already heavy national security burdens facing the nation.
Less well known than cyber attacks are emerging disruptive technologies that may also profoundly change the nature of conflict. Governments, businesses, small groups of individuals, terrorists and criminal organizations with goals ranging from profit to political mayhem will increasingly use these cutting-edge technologies. The nation needs to mobilize its thought leaders to address these daunting problems.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in an April speech at Stanford University, called for greater collaboration between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley to thwart cyber attacks on the U.S. homeland. The subsequent establishment of the Pentagon outpost in Silicon Valley (the Defense Innovation Unit X ) is a step in the right direction. The actual need is far greater.
Creative relationships between the government and the private sector are required across the full range of emerging technologies to protect the United States, whether the attack exploits primitive weapons or state-of-the-art technology. This is because governments no longer dominate security-relevant technology. Terrorists and criminals as well as hostile nations — including but not limited to Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, ISIS and al Qaeda — have growing technological and entrepreneurial capabilities to acquire many of these technologies.
They are more likely than not to ignore the international norms and conventions established to guide the conduct of war and protect civilians. In the wrong hands, innovative technologies could obscure battle lines, cloud accountability and fuel chaos in the international legal system. During that lag time between peaceful development of technology and its exploitation to threaten, however, countermeasures can be developed.
A countermeasure strategy has three parts:
- The intelligence community needs to improve its ability to provide strategic warning when hostile intent combines with innovative technological capability. Our experiences with the use of improvised explosive devices by insurgents in Iraq and reports of extensive use of unreported chemicals as barrel bombs in Syria after the U.S. removed President Bashar Assad’s acknowledged chemical weapons arsenal illustrate the challenge of unexpected innovation. Providing strategic warning requires significant upgrades in how we collect data on and analyze emerging technologies, as well as clear-eyed assessments of those who may contemplate using them.
- We must act on such warnings. The recent cyber attack on the Office of Personnel Management is a case in point. Our government understood the ubiquitous threats to our networks, but failed to implement effective defenses.
- Policymakers must reinforce the norms, both domestic and international, on which modern societies depend. This is not easy. The departments of Commerce, State and Defense face a brave new world to adjust technology transfer policies to limit the misuse of otherwise valuable technologies. When and how should the United States accept constraints on its own behavior and that of its citizens in exchange for international agreements? As domestic and cross-border drug-trafficking demonstrates, declaring norms can fall well short of achieving them, and success requires technological innovation by the private sector coupled with action by governments.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the American public should demand to know how the presidential candidates — who are also competing for the job of commander in chief of the armed forces — might address this new technological security challenge.
Michael Nacht, former assistant secretary of Defense for global strategic affairs, is a professor of public policy at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. The PDF of his book, with Zachary Davis and Ronald Lehman, “Strategic Latency and World Power” can be found here.
This article was originally posted on SF Chronicle.