I recently had the pleasure of attending the Australian Security Summit in Canberra. The summit, principally for public sector delegates dealing with national security challenges, did a great job of attracting top speakers and senior current and former bureaucrats for their candid assessments of the global challenges of radicalisation, terrorism, and transnational crime.
What struck me was that this event – tangibly more than similar events I had attended in the past – was permeated by an undercurrent of technology enablement. Indeed, technology featured in the vast majority of presentations and roundtable discussions.
On reflection, the fourth industrial revolution, powered by the digital economy, has well and truly landed on the doorstep of national security policymakers and practitioners. While technology has always been a feature, they have not had to deal with today’s ever-increasing pace of technology advancement.
“Technology enablement” has a ring of great promise to it for positive national security outcomes, but perversely, it also applies to the perpetrators of radicalisation, terrorism, and transnational crime. These perpetrators are incredibly agile with access to a highly distributed technology workforce not constrained by geographic boundaries or organisational infrastructures. They are not bound to procurement rules that for public-sector organisations are historically well-founded and seek to provide the best value for money for taxpayers. They operate at the bleeding edge of technology with a huge appetite for taking risk, simply because they can.
Bleeding-edge technological advancement in the 20th century was heavily influenced by that century’s depressing propensity for global warfare, including the Cold War, and by the space race. But this century has seen the emergence of a staggering array of technology innovation by sectors such as retail, finance, and utilities. Those with nefarious intent are harnessing those commercial advancements, whether to radicalise, plan and equip terrorist acts, commit crime, or conduct cyberattacks.
As @Richard Walton, one of the key speakers at the summit, suggested, in the context of globalisation and a digitally connected world, this has created a global, networked radicalisation and terrorism threat. He suggests the threat requires nations to have integrated systems, policies, and practices, and these need to be internationally as well as domestically focused. He has published similar insights when discussing how the UK tackled the 2012 Olympics counterterrorism effort.
So, how do governments and their national security agencies stay at the bleeding edge of technology to counter highly sophisticated, agile threat actors while managing risk? Some simple suggestions come to mind.
First, agencies should look to broaden the pool of technology providers beyond the traditional defence, aerospace, and space industries that served societal advancement so well in the 20th century. The co-existence and integration of specialist national security technologies with the latest, greatest commercial advancements could offer some powerful combinations for capability enhancement.
Secondly, identify and support business startups to plug holes in capability gaps. Agencies need not do this alone, but can draw on the university sector, research sector, and larger partner companies to help such startups navigate their way to commercial viability for the mutual benefit of all. University Innovation Districts open up such possibilities, a case in point being 22@ in Barcelona. The University of Canberra seeks to learn from this model as it develops its campus as part of a push to transform Canberra into a knowledge economy.
Finally, agencies need be innovative in the act of procurement itself. They should consider long-term service arrangements or innovation partnerships with industry rather than point-in-time hardware or software purchases. As a simple service arrangement example, companies can now purchase access to compressed air on an industrial scale from Kaeser rather than air compressors per se. In this service-based model, customers benefit continually as the provider innovates, without the risk of having to keep on investing on new products and capability.
To conclude, the digital economy does extend to national security. It is time, as Richard Walton suggests, to seek integrated systems, policies, and practices across the national security ecosystem. The more cognisant this ecosystem is of the digital economy beyond the normal purview of national security agencies, I would argue, the better chance of staying ahead of these ever-increasing security challenges.