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[WebDebate #31 summary] Technology and diplomacy: Unpacking the relationship

Published on 17 July 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

Our July WebDebate aimed to unpack the relationship between technology and diplomacy, and to make suggestions for diplomats who want to understand and address the geopolitical, security, human rights, and economic implications of the rise of new technologies. Joining us for this discussion were Mr Daniel P Bagge (Cyber Attaché to the United States and Canada, National Cyber and Information Security Agency, Embassy of the Czech Republic, Washington DC) and Mr Vladimir Radunovic (Cybersecurity and E-Diplomacy Programmes Director, DiploFoundation). The debate was moderated by Ms Tereza Horejsova (Project Development Director, DiploFoundation). Right from the start, the participants stressed the importance of technology for diplomacy and then moved to discuss specific examples, such as the new 5G technology as it pertains to diplomatic questions. 

The importance of 5G

Radunovic stated that most users think about 5G as the next generation of telecommunications networks which is going to have a faster speed – 10 Gbps connections – compared to today’s 50 Mbps. The essential difference, he pointed out, will be in the latency of package travel, because 5G technology will enable users to receive and send information in almost real-time. The resulting reduction in latency allows real-time control of smart devices. 5G will thus enable connection of all smart devices and taking a step further towards a smart environment where everything communicates with everything – an Internet of Things (IoT) environment. Radunovic highlighted that this will actually be a step forward in artificial intelligence (AI) development, as IoT will generate high quantities of data from which AI can learn. He stated that the development of 5G technology is actually part of the race toward a more extensive IoT and, ultimately, to the race for dominance in AI. Bagge added that while 5G technology will increase the number of connected devices, which will generate this potential for data, for training AI, or machine learning, it will also create a lot of entry points that a bad actor might want to exploit for an attack.

The security concerns around Huawei

Bagge stressed that Huawei is not the only company capable of building 5G networks – Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia 5G networks are already in use, for example in South Korea (Samsung) and the US (Ericsson and Nokia). He cautioned that we must be careful about the inputs we bring into the discussion on technology and diplomacy so that they are not only technical or pertain to PR battles between competitors on the market.

Bagge also spoke about the warning the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA) of the Czech Republic issued over security concerns about Huawei. For two years, NCISA analysed the potential impacts of 5G and actors on the market. The warning was a heads-up to telco operators, almost a year ahead of the 5G spectrum bidding in Czech Republic, to behave according to the law. Bagge stated that 5G is very important as it will bring economic growth, it will qualitatively change how governments and societies function. For instance, governmental communication will be transferred over 5G and not fibre optics or landlines, because it will be not cost-effective anymore.

5G networks and trust

Radunovic spoke about the implications 5G networks will have for society’s trust in technology (for more information see our April GIP Digital Watch Newsletter). He agreed with Bagge about the future dependency of societies on 5G and other technologies. He noted that there is a risk of bad actor employing ‘kill switch’ meaning that a malicious actor could penetrate another actor’s communications or industry systems and undermine or shut those systems down in case of an open war. A less radical possibility is espionage – snooping on the communications and innovations of another country. Radunovic also highlighted that technology is a black box and users do not know what is inside it because it is very complex. Further ramifications are added by the fact that most technology also contains intellectual property. Western countries emphasise as a risk that Chinese companies, Huawei included, are required to cooperate with the Chinese government upon the government’s request. However, as Radunovic pointed out, the Snowden affair revealed that in the US as well, the private sector cooperates with the government – willingly or unwillingly – meaning that users are not completely safe with any technologies, anywhere.

Bagge stated that all technologies are vulnerable, but stressed that it is more important to discern whether they are vulnerable by design or by accident, and if the vendors are willing to fix a vulnerability found by security researchers. Another important question is perceiving underlying motive behind a company’s actions – whether they are profit-oriented or if there is another larger motive behind them. According to Bagge, the main issue is not the quality of the technology, but questions of trust, of what users entrust to the technology they are using. He also pointed out that vendor lock-in (which makes a customer dependent on a particular vendor for products and services) is complicated and financially and politically costly to get out of, and elected politicians might not be willing to pay this price.

Trade and technology

Radunovic stated that Huawei controls more than 25% of the global telecom market at the moment. He noted that the telecommunications market has already been established, and it is difficult to dismiss any corporative member. For example, cutting Huawei out of the telecommunications network in the UK is not simple, because the existing telecommunication network already depends to a large extent on Huawei. If a developed country decides to roll back its plans for 5G technologies, it could lose billions as well as the ongoing race to develop 5G networks, which leads to developing more extensive IoT, and then AI. But Radunovic also stated that Ericsson and Nokia said that they probably would not be able to make up for the lack of Huawei in the market should Huawei be banned in most countries. He noted that an important factor in the advancement in technologies during the last few decades was that institutions and experts worked together on a global level, with international projects and finances focussing on different parts of the supply chain. However, politics could break this supply chain and lead to a breakdown in the trust in the global effort in developing technologies. If everyone starts to build complex technology (hardware and chip industry) in-house, it could lead to the fragmentation of the market, which could further lead to a fragmentation in developing and implementing technologies, and deterioration of trade relations.

Bagge touched upon the issue of values, including the purposes collected data is used for. He pointed out that countries cannot think only in terms of security, but must also consider larger economic aspects. The balance between security and prosperity is reached in negotiations, he noted, but diplomats often cannot understand the nuances of cybersecurity as it is not a tangible concept. He stressed that diplomats do not have to be technically proficient, but must be able to understand the potential implications of a lack of strong cybersecurity.

Developing countries and 5G technologies

Developing countries are not in the race for AI at the moment. Often, the choice between telecom equipment vendors is made by considering the quality and the cost of the equipment rather than issues of trust. Although they do not usually produce their own equipment, they often equally (dis)trust foreign vendors. Because the USA has a strong culture of protecting intellectual property with trademarks and copyright, this is especially problematic with US intellectual property. He noted that many experts, scientists, and researchers from developing countries have worked on developing technologies and in some way co-own parts of global intellectual property in technological developments, but developing countries often do not legally protect this or try to use it in trade and political debates. He stated that the main problem in developing countries is that they rarely consider the digital aspects of diplomacy and international relations, because they consider digital aspects to be something that is present in developed countries only. He stressed that awareness must be raised on political and diplomatic levels to get involved in digital policy discussions.

Bagge pointed out that each country has different circumstances and conditions which affect the development of technologies. He noted that the Prague Proposals outline areas of interest that government or a corporate entity should have a look at if they are considering building a 5G network. The proposals are not country-specific and they are not vendor-specific.

Can the US technology ban kill Huawei?

Adding to the ban on the use of Huawei equipment in the USA, the US President has introduced a ban on the export of US technology to Huawei and other Chinese companies. Bagge believes that the bans could kill Huawei, but that in his opinion, will not. Radunovic noted that Huawei itself stated the latest ban would cost them billions, but that he is also of the opinion the company will survive. There are a couple of things Huawei could do rather quickly: emphasise software development and parts of chip design. Huawei might come out stronger in the long run, Radunovic hypothesised. An analysis of the Huawei ban by the USA, including prospects and consequences for Huawei, the US tech industry, and the global market, can be found in the May issue of the GIP Digital Watch Newsletter.

Looking ahead

Radunovic called the US decision to introduce the ban on Huawei ‘crossing the Rubicon’ because it clearly showcased that politics plays a big role in the technology development process – and reverting the ban will not undo this perception. The whole debate about Huawei crushed trust in the technological supply chain. In the future, we will need to begin with the knowledge that the trust in the global technological supply chain is gone, Radunovic noted. He concluded by reflecting on trust and values. 

On the one hand, our trust in technology has been ruined by states misusing technologies to undermine each other, to achieve their geopolitical interests, and wage hybrid wars (blending conventional and unconventional warfare). On the other hand, companies such as Huawei, Microsoft, and Kaspersky have started extending their ‘transparency efforts’, and that might mean that the corporate sector understands that it needs to be more responsible, transparent, and reassuring that their products do not contain backdoors. This might be a good move to increase trust. Each country has a set of values it stands for, and it is important to take them into account.

Bagge highlighted that the US ban on purchasing Huawei equipment for US infrastructure was not reverted, but that US companies will be allowed to sell components to Huawei again. He noted that transparency centres (for example at Microsoft) are meant to communicate with political leadership, and not users or tech professionals, and that the centres are – for numerous physical and technical reasons – useless in terms of cybersecurity. Bagge concluded there is a growing interest in cybersecurity and cyberspace from governments, as they realise it will be the backbone of future governance, future societies, and future economies. In the future, there will be more uncertainty in the international arena; but there will also be more efforts on the professional level by the technical community, think-tanks, international law organisations, etc. He also stated that he hopes to see many more courses for diplomats and decision-makers on these issues, as capacity building is needed in these areas.

Many of these topics are discussed in more depth in Diplo’s Internet Technology and Policy: Challenges and Solutions course scheduled for July 2019.

Horejsova concluded the WebDebate by inviting the audience to watch previous WebDebates and webinars, and visit the GIP Digital Watch observatory. She also invited the audience to attend the Digital [and] Diplomacy: How to deal with digital aspects of foreign policy conference organised by DiploFoundation in partnership with Swiss Confederation and the Republic and Canton of Geneva. 

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