Expanding cyberthreats on mind of America's Role in the World panel

The cyberthreats that could have influenced an election and have certainly dominated the news in the last few years have fertile ground for growth. At Indiana University's fourth annual America's Role in the World conference, a panel of security experts on the panel titled "National Security Challenges 2020" forecasted several potential dangers that could build upon the internet-based attacks we've recently seen.

"The authoritarian toolkit, mainly by managing and owning and mining and controlling the digital space, is becoming more sophisticated. It's becoming harder to control and get our heads around," said Lucas Kello, who directs Oxford University's Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. "To me, when I think forward to when we have this conference 25 years from now, that will probably be the most profound threat we are going to look back on that we've either faced or not."

While Russia continues to be a worry in its political cyberthreats, the panelists agreed that China is lurking with a great potential for expanding its ability to create havoc in the virtual space.

A student looks at a program booklet while sitting in a crowded auditoriumView print quality image
The auditorium in the School of Global and International Studies Building was packed during many of the panels at the fourth annual America's Role in the World conference. Photo by Anna Powell Teeter

While Russia continues to be a worry in its political cyberthreats, the panelists agreed that China is lurking with a great potential for expanding its ability to create havoc in the virtual space.

"With China, a decade ago, the rap was that they were not particularly good at innovating; they were just very good at copying," said Derek Chollet, executive vice president and senior advisor for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Chollet served in the White House of President Barack Obama as well as in the State Department, and also as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon. "Now, when it comes to AI or quantum computing, they are innovating, and they are leading the pack, and they want to define the future of artificial intelligence -- and this is an area where we are playing from behind."

Chollet said China expects to gain advantage in this area for military purposes, making it harder for the U.S. to protect allies and interests in the Asia Pacific.

Like Russia, China has a built-in authoritarian system that is highly evolved for its domestic information control. In that way, it could emulate the Russian methods of recent years.

"What worries me is that these capabilities will be transferred to applications abroad," Kello said. "So I can imagine easily, as the geopolitical tensions between China and the West -- perhaps especially the United States -- intensify over the coming years and decades, there will be a greater perceived need or gain in Beijing to use cyberspace to disrupt and weaken Western political systems, taking more than one page from the Russian manual of information warfare."

And as the Chinese have gained in skill, they are taking over the standard for security operations. Juliette Kayyem, formerly the assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, is now Belfer Lecturer in International Security at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and faculty director of the Homeland Security Project. She said the current U.S. pullback from worldwide leadership provides a clear opportunity for China to set standards that could make the U.S. more vulnerable.

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"So just thinking about our decision to withdraw -- from not just criticizing NATO or the UN, but literally withdrawing from (worldwide security leadership) that table-setting that has protected us remarkably from this borderless threat front," Kayyem said. "China will come in."

What is clear is that China is moving forward and trying to reach to far more advanced areas of technology, said Christopher Kojm, professor of practice at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Kojm was deputy director of the 9/11 Commission and senior advisor to the Iraq Study Group following years as a staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

"If you can achieve success with quantum computing, it will be a level of computing power that will far exceed anything that we have today," Kojm said. "It has direct military applications that can defeat stealth technology and can find submarines hidden in the ocean. Let's be clear: Some of this is quite speculative, and China is putting quite a bit of money into quantum computing, as is the United States, and we don't know where they are in their development. But certainly over the time horizon of the next 10 to 20 years, it could make an enormous difference in the safety and security of this country and the strategic balance as we know it."

This vision of a new future also made one panelist reflective of the not-so-distant past. As technology races forward, it has brought a new reality that brings cyberthreats closer to all countries. "If you're the craziest person out of 1 million people, we now have the means for getting you in touch with the 380 Americans who are just as crazy as you are, and that's just in the United States," said Tod Lindberg, a professor of practice at the Hamilton Lugar School at IU and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

"This horror in New Zealand is unthinkable in the absence of digital media and social media," Lindberg said. "It enabled it. It was broadcast. This is new. We had a capacity -- we didn't even realize it was a capacity -- to keep extreme fringe views apart, and it's gone."