The role of international cooperation


As part of a week-long series focused on Mapping China’s AmbitionsThe Cipher Brief, partnering with Harvard University research fellow and former British diplomat Jimmy Burnham To explore China’s threat vectors, how they organize in order to win, what the government ecosystem looks like and the impact that international cooperation will have in the future.

Burnham today focuses on the importance of international cooperation. Earlier in The Cipher Brief, Burnham explored organizing a Government data ecosystem, How China organizes to win and China’s broader ambitions and threat vectors.

Jimmy Burnham, Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School

Jimmy Burnham is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs where he explores how digital technologies are changing political intelligence and policymaking. As a British diplomat, he served throughout Africa and the Middle East, with specific interests in the spread of weapons technology and the resilience of fragile states.

The scale of the challenge posed by China and its transnational nature require greater benefit from the web of international relations that has developed since World War II. The more established international clearing-house partnership is colloquially known as the Five Eyes: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. David OmandD., a former director of GCHQ, describes a degree of mutual trustworthiness that comes “from a long history of respecting each other’s sensibilities, demonstrating that commitments entered into and limitations imposed will be honored”.

However, data technologies are changing the information landscape at a rapid pace. Unlike SIGINT, international data sharing has not developed as quickly as the technologies would allow and does not require new drives. Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, Argues That “U.S. intelligence must reimagine its closest communication partnerships from those focused on intelligence sharing to those on intelligence generation, building a full-spectrum intelligence partnership that jointly develops technology and performs technology-enabled intelligence missions.”

The institutional structure is slow to develop even within national borders. In the international context, change is hampered by conflicting political, legal, institutional and cultural interests. These can often be exacerbated by poor mutual understanding of the issues and a lack of a common vision for the mission. Any post tends to be binary and ad hoc, with a high degree of caution about how the information is misused. The absence of an institutional structure prevents participation as a rule. Opportunities are missed. Secondary data sets with high advantages (eg, network analysis) may not benefit from the existing knowledge base of partners. New analytical technologies or innovations, such as machine learning algorithms, are not shared.

Develop the “backbone” of data

International data partnerships must form part of the necessary mutual response to the challenge of China (and other state actors). The “backbone” of data sharing may provide the following operational benefits:

  • Increased efficiency by reducing duplication of data collection, cleaning and assimilation and adopting a “data only once” approach;
  • Encourage the sharing of secondary data sets with high advantages, such as PRC acquisition networks;
  • develop a common understanding of risks;
  • Improving collaboration across domains by more easily integrating different data collection techniques to achieve impact;
  • Encouraging innovation and sharing data exploitation techniques and analytical tools.

While there are technology challenges and infrastructure challenges, these are unlikely to prove more significant – especially as the move to cloud-based services will impose common technology standards and secure data methods. The greatest inhibition is likely to be in the following areas:

  • Policy. The current institutional arrangements are strong and well proven. Undermining protocols and trust in existing intelligence-sharing arrangements would create significant risks and undermine approval of an emerging approach.
  • legal. Five Eyes partners have different privacy and data management laws, with much higher judicial oversight and regulation in those jurisdictions that use the “Westminster” system of government (UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand).
  • judgment. The duties of the Head of Data/Information are usually required to ensure common standards and appropriate investment. However, a collaborative management system can be established, to ensure interoperability.

Outside network 5 eyes, there may be opportunities to create unconventional data partnerships, while recognizing some trust barriers and organizational difference. These may include entities within Asian economies, such as the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) that have a deep knowledge store of business intelligence. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, there is greater freedom to create an information system that supports the protection of international trade and intellectual property.

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future ambition

The ambition should be to provide a data backbone that enables a “web of networks,” in which liberal democracies are able to secure a cognitive advantage over their opponents. The realization of such an ambition is unlikely to be simple, and it will require the patronage of senior leaders.


Threats to our citizens are emerging along global infrastructure networks. The People’s Republic of China combines size and technological prowess to gain an advantage over well-established advanced economies. For the UK, the costs can be measured in terms of lost livelihoods, lost tax revenue, and compromised security capabilities.

On one level, the UK’s response will reflect the country’s ability to protect its citizens. Nick Clegg describe it His years as Deputy Prime Minister were “trapped between the desire to respond quickly to sensible plans of action and the stressful reality of decision-making in government, caught between the politics of the digital age and the analogous arrangements in Whitehall”. The infrastructure of the modern economy is not new. The technologies driving change have been visible for many years. The government has been slow to develop business models that improve the delivery of public services while reducing costs. Within a national security framework, the presentation of data within and across functions is often seen as the exception rather than the rule.

Challenges represent choices for the intelligence community. Many current intelligence practices will remain of long-term strategic value. Behind the most advanced technologies are people. It is always possible that human intelligence has some role in revealing the intentions of enemies. However, if the absolute value of these techniques remains constant, their comparative value may diminish. The volume of activity is too large, and the complexity is too great to rely on specialized assembly systems to protect a broad threat surface. New forms of information collection and dissemination are needed, based on the skill base that exists within the government. The value of the information should be determined by impact and not by the sensitivity of the source.

Moreover, the methods required for the data are in direct conflict with secret intelligence-gathering doctrines. The most effective way to maximize the value of data is through a highly networked and collaborative approach in which information is shared widely and in real time. These principles contrast with intelligence practices that require significant information fragmentation and reduced information distribution. There are reasons for adopting either approach, but the fact of choice may not be obvious to those who present in well-established operational models. Cloud computing technologies will be of little use if existing practices are simply replicated.

The ability to analyze new data focused on China requires a model for providing information and intelligence, which fits uncomfortably with current practices. It may be necessary to create an NCSC equivalent to a GCHQ that operates successfully in both low- and high-side areas, or an organization outside the existing intelligence community. In any case, providing information requires more than just acquiring tools and data, it requires a broader examination of assumptions, training, policy and organizational governance. The boundaries between government capacity and the commercial sector can be made more replaceable, with problems being shared and solving to support innovation. Networked international partnerships may allow for the exchange of insights, methods, and techniques, and create opportunities for disruptive action.

Navigating these waters requires perseverance and commitment, not least from supreme leadership. If these contradictions and conflicts can be managed, there are likely to be broader benefits. In the long term, intelligence agencies may evolve into “knowledge platforms” on which there is a range of capabilities to gather, exploit, and act upon information. They will also require an organizational culture that is mission-focused, flat, inclusive, collaborative and creative. Meeting the Chinese challenge requires the best of us.

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