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Submission on Aotearoa government national security long-term insights briefing, November 2021
Time to start conversations on the kaleidoscope of scenarios where emerging technologies could have fundamental impact on Aotearoa's national security.
This is another occasional post between weekly newsletters, fulfilling my civic duty 😇. This week I provided a short submission to the Consultation on National Security Long-term Insights Briefing Topic: “Engaging an increasingly diverse Aotearoa New Zealand on national security risks, challenges and opportunities.”
This was an opportunity for me to gather together my thinking around scenarios where national security may be at risk from new and emerging technologies - and also a set of suggested strategies to counter these risks.
As usual a lot of thinking aloud - hopefully useful, comments welcome below or by email as always.
Consultation on National Security Long-term Insights Briefing Topic
“Engaging an increasingly diverse Aotearoa New Zealand on national security risks, challenges and opportunities.”
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Public Submission Submitted by: Ben Reid 16 November 2021
This short submission provides a summary of identified national security risks and opportunities Aotearoa faces from new and emerging technologies. National two-way conversations should be encouraged to explore these scenarios and debate potential national-level responses. The submission also notes that emerging technologies provide significant opportunities to strengthen Aotearoa's resilience against many hostile scenarios. Aotearoa’s government should increase cooperation and investment with values-aligned national governments and communities around the world, collaborating on open source technology and open source intelligence to counterbalance emerging technological risks.
Answers to Questions
1. Are there any themes or focus areas that should be a priority for this Long-term Insights Briefing?
The primary theme which I am submitting on is identifying the impacts of emerging technologies on the future security of Aotearoa's citizens and residents - and global citizens around the world.
2. What are the key national security concerns, risks and challenges you have for your family, workplace and community now?
I start from a premise that a free and open internet is a fundamentally good thing for individual and collective wellbeing, prosperity, human rights and security. However the way it currently operates in Aotearoa - and nearly every other country in the world outside China - carries growing risks when considered from a personal- and national- sovereignty and security perspective.
Aotearoa finds itself in the position of being a net “technology taker”: Society, government and business - partly as a result of historical low investment into digital innovation over decades - now operates upon digital communications and entertainment platforms ("stacks") largely owned, controlled and operated by a small number of US technology giants.
The Prime Minister is intermediated by Facebook when reaching out to her audience online.
We all use Android (Google) or Apple mobile operating systems and their proprietary app stores.
Google largely controls what New Zealanders see when they search the internet
Amazon and Microsoft operate the majority of the cloud computing infrastructure used by New Zealand businesses.
In contrast, TikTok is arguably the only non-US-owned platform which has achieved critical mass adoption in the West in recent times.
Exacerbating this situation is the inbuilt incentivisation of "Web2" platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter to optimise for maximal audience attention - effectively hacking users’ brainstems to deliver eyeballs for advertisers rather than optimising for other dimensions of human wellbeing.
This situation is by no means unique to Aotearoa - indeed, outside the US arguably only China has maintained its digital sovereignty at a national level - but only by operating a massive state censorship apparatus and erecting a "great firewall" - effectively attempting to blockade itself off from the international internet. An approach which is clearly not aligned with Aotearoa’s democratic values and protection of free speech.
3. What security risks and challenges concern you for the future?
There is a kaleidoscope of potential scenarios where new emerging technologies could have fundamental impacts on people and society - and by implication national security. Some of the more extreme imagined scenarios include:
Above all others, the existential risk to humanity of nuclear war: Toby Ord's 2020 book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity puts the (necessarily speculative) probability of nuclear war that causes human extinction at ~1:1,000 this century. The climate modelling of a nuclear winter from just a “regional” nuclear conflict - eg India and Pakistan - is frankly terrifying. (See https://www.pnas.org/content/117/13/7071).
Physical disconnection from the worldwide internet: a hostile state- or non-state actor cuts the few underwater fibre connections to Aotearoa and the country is cut off from international internet and cloud services, except for very narrow satellite bandwidth - which is equally vulnerable.
AI-enhanced cyberattacks on Aotearoa government, business and infrastructure: a hostile actor develops an AI-trained "digital twin" of critical digital infrastructure and launches a premeditated, coordinated "blitzkrieg" attack, optimised to cause maximum disruption and bringing down IT systems across the whole nation. Infrastructure malfunctions affect traffic lights, electricity grids, water supply and sewage pumps around the country. Banks lose their ledgers, payment systems stop working, government grinds to a halt because they cannot send or receive emails, the Reserve Bank cannot operate its clearing systems and the NZ$ goes into freefall as the economy collapses.
Digital identity misappropriation: AI-enabled coordinated cyber attacks misappropriate Aotearoa residents' identities (potentially en masse) and lock users out of digital systems permanently and/or initiate fraudulent financial transactions and social media interactions.
National intelligence services increasingly operate blind in the face of encrypted messaging systems and "dark web" networks and fail to identify coordinated terrorist attacks in advance.
Memetic attacks: an avalanche of targeted mis- and dis-information. Key Web2 platforms right now are unprepared and likely incapable of moderating / preventing an avalanche of AI-generated misinformation using increasingly sophisticated targeting techniques to manipulate people's belief systems and broader social norms in Aotearoa. (Witness the current "anti-vaxx" misinformation campaigns which display signs of being "a Trojan Horse for norm-setting and norm-entrenchment of far-right ideologies in Aotearoa New Zealand") What we are witnessing is arguably just the beginning: Increasingly there may be no common narrative around which political and cultural activities can be contextualised, leading to increased social unrest and a rapid disintegration of any cohesive "national identity".
Targeted election interference: as with recent events in the US and other countries, Aotearoa's technologically unsophisticated political system is open to external gaming and interference: either in the runup to voting, at vote-counting time or in the days after voting. (What if there was an AI-generated "deepfake" video of the election result announcement for each constituency being circulated on social media? Which one is real?)
Autonomous weapons: the ability for hostile state and non-state to coordinate swarms of autonomous, low cost drones - bringing down electricity grids or even carrying lethal ballistic weapons and potentially targeted at individuals using facial / biometric recognition?
Engineered bioweapons / nanotechnology: again hostile actors could release targeted bioweapons which only act against certain ethnicities, ages or threaten the whole population with a lethally infectious pandemic far worse than Covid.
Autonomous airborne and submarine drones for smuggling goods into Aotearoa bypassing any kinds of customs, biosecurity or national security controls
Decentralised or foreign-corporate-controlled cryptocurrencies displacing the NZ Dollar as the means of exchange and primary store of value and challenging the sovereignty of a territorial national government.
Metaverse states: the establishment of non-geographically contiguous "network states" spanning territory controlled in multiple countries around the world, joined together by cryptographic technologies: effectively a "country within many countries" which attract greater allegiance from Aotearoa residents than the historical concept of a physical nation state. (See https://1729.com/the-network-state).
Post-quantum cryptography: many of the current foundations of cryptography are potentially vulnerable to advances in quantum computing: quantum-enabled decryption technology, which would render any conventionally encrypted digital system vulnerable to compromise. (See https://media.defense.gov/2021/Aug/04/2002821837/-1/-1/1/Quantum_FAQs_20210804.PDF)
At the less extreme end of risks is the ongoing vulnerability of Aotearoa to continued erosion of relative economic and social living standards due to slower technological adoption and diffusion than peer countries: basically if the country continues to be a net "technology taker", existing on platforms owned and controlled by foreign actors, then the country will continue to be subject to a largely “extractive” economic model.
4. What types of conversations do we need to have now, to better prepare us for the future and who should be involved?
The following topics deserve a broader national conversation than we have had to date:
What are the threats to Aotearoa's security that could require surveillance of citizens and residents? How will the risks of state overreach be mitigated?
How can Aotearoa strengthen its resilience against external cyber attacks and/or physical disruption of our international undersea fibre connections?
How can Aotearoa strengthen its resilience to externally coordinated memetic attacks?
What are the offensive scenarios against which Aotearoa's strategic defence posture is focused? What are the costs vs. the benefits of investing more or less in strategic defence?
What new strategic alliances could Aotearoa participate in with likeminded democratic, small economy states worldwide to co-develop and share open-source technology platforms as an alternative to those currently in use and controlled by US technology giants optimised for maximising attention and advertising revenue?
What new kinds of strategic alliances could Aotearoa initiate and contribute to in an age of "network states" which abstract the concept of a nation state to the “Metaverse”?
How would the Aotearoa government maintain economic sovereignty if high-functionality, inflation-proof borderless cryptocurrencies (or corporate-sponsored cryptocurrencies such as Diem) displaced the New Zealand dollar in day to day transactions?
5. Have you engaged or communicated with any government agencies on national security issues in the past? What went well or could have been better?
6. What could the government do to further build trust and confidence with you, your family/whānau and community?
As mentioned below, more openness about citizen surveillance. If increased surveillance legislation is passed, there needs to be accountability and transparency of who is surveilling who.
7. If you have had positive engagement with government agencies in the past, what made it positive?
8. How could agencies in national security be more responsive to the public?
9. Can we contact you again to seek further input on the briefing?
10. What method do you prefer for future engagement on the briefing?
Signal for secure communications. Otherwise Email or SMS.
11. Is there anything else you want us to know?
Emerging technologies also provide significant opportunities to strengthen Aotearoa's resilience against many of the kinds of attack scenarios listed above. It is likely that all of these opportunities rely on increased cooperation with values-aligned national governments and communities around the world, working in formal and informal alliances to counterbalance emerging technological risks.
Some example opportunities:
Using blockchain to validate nuclear non-proliferation commitments and autonomous drones / decentralised IoT networks to detect nuclear activity on the ground. (See my podcast interview with Lyndon Burford: https://memia.substack.com/p/memia-podcast-2-lyndon-burford-on)
Ensuring telecommunications and internet resilience in the event of national disconnection: similar to exercises by Russia and others, testing that Aotearoa's core internet and IT infrastructure will still function in the event of a physical disconnection attack. (See https://www.reuters.com/technology/russia-disconnected-global-internet-tests-rbc-daily-2021-07-22/)
Ensuring that core government IT systems and data will continue to persist and be operable in the case of an onshore "blitzkrieg" cyberattack or even the extreme case of a territorial invasion. In practice this means hosting core services in onshore cloud providers - but with offshore failover - and establishing one or more "data embassies" in friendly nation states. This enables the continued operation of an Aotearoa "government in exile" in the worst case scenario. (See Estonia picks Luxembourg for 'ultimate backup'). Aotearoa could benefit from offering this capability reciprocally to other countries’ governments.
Ensuring that core government and financial IT systems are placed at less at risk of cyberattack due to their centralized architecture: leveraging proven and emergent blockchain and decentralized computing protocols (currently hyped as "Web3") to provide greater resilience and also enable more transparent “on-chain” governance mechanisms.
Investing alongside other aligned national governments in open-source software platforms to encourage more use of a technology "stack" less at the mercy of US-based technology giants and their attention-economy based business models. In particular: core building blocks including open source operating systems, secure data storage, identity management, secure email, messaging and audio / video communication platforms, as well as core government enterprise software systems.
Investing in open source and decentralized technologies to support “Liquid Democracy” mechanisms for upgraded electoral and legislative systems, to provide resilience against potential capture of the parliamentary system. (See https://liquidfeedback.com/en/ )
Similarly, building greater shared OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) capabilities in alliance with other national governments which are entirely open to all citizens and residents.
Countering the influence of closed-internet states by committing to an open and free global internet and working with likeminded states on strong internet governance to avoid fragmentation outcomes. To the same end, accelerate and encourage the availability of low cost or freely accessible satellite and 5G internet access everywhere on the planet’s surface. Ensure that the future global internet supports open international standards which are not designed to support central state surveillance of all communications. (See: https://www.justsecurity.org/75741/chinas-dystopian-new-ip-plan-shows-need-for-renewed-us-commitment-to-internet-governance) and (https://helium.com)
Two-way surveillance: if democratic governments insist on asserting that national security measures require increased surveillance of Aotearoa citizens and residents, then there needs to be a strong counterbalance of the power of the state. (See: Edward Snowden). One tool to do this would be to ensure that all state surveillance activity is strictly audited and available / notified to the individual being surveilled. Sunshine being the best antiseptic, etc... Otherwise who spies on the spies? (Particularly in an age of technological risk where hostile actors could potentially gain control of these surveillance systems for their own purposes as well).
Exploring opportunities with other governments to encourage and support emergent "network states" - for example leasing land for "free zones" where strongly governed crypto-state networks can legally operate on Aotearoa soil, in the long run strengthening resilience against external actors.
Investing in non-lethal, semi-autonomous defence capabilities: for example low cost, open source drone technologies can be repurposed to counter billion-dollar conventional military capabilities such as aircraft carriers. Better to invest scarce defence budgets in modern technologies (preferably open source and in alliance with likeminded states) rather than commit billions of taxpayer dollars to traditional military hardware which just perpetuates a 1960s-era military-industrial complex. (see: AUKUS)
Noting the massive challenge to global security posed by fully autonomous lethal weapons. (See https://www.stopkillerrobots.org/)
About The Author
Ben Reid works as an independent strategic advisor with software and technology businesses in Aotearoa and internationally. His professional focus areas include growth strategy, innovation management, digital transformation and technology governance. He brings 25+ years of diverse tech sector experience including a background career as a software developer and architect. He is a Beachheads Advisor with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and was previously the Executive Director of the Artificial Intelligence Forum of New Zealand from 2018-2020. He is the author of the popular weekly Memia email newsletter covering emerging technology trends and accelerating global change from Aotearoa.