Towards a government data ecosystem


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.

Today, Burnham is focused on the path towards a government ecosystem. Earlier cipher feedBurnham explored China’s broad ambitions and threat vectors, as well as how to do it Beijing organizes against those ambitions and threat vectors. So, once governments understand the threats, how can they use their data more effectively?

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.

Knowledge is worthless if it is not used. The ability to analyze data should operate as part of a broader ecosystem of government data. United kingdom Integrated review National security recognizes that a country’s economic, security, and leverage capabilities can provide a complementary advantage in achieving strategic goals. It recognizes that as the volume of data grows exponentially, the ability to generate and use it to drive innovation will be key to enabling strategic advantage.

China’s analytical capacity should be seen as contributing insight and knowledge to policy and operational decisions across a range of security and intelligence functions. Prerequisites may be, for example, the provision of information in low-side environments to enable early interventions in FDI decisions or export control orders, or perhaps an understanding of vaccine supply chain resilience. In a high-side environment, the data can be combined with other collection systems to monitor the impact on military capability or inform counterintelligence investigations. Integrating data into a broader system is partly a technical challenge (using API portals) but also requires collaboration across institutional boundaries to frame questions and build models.

Intelligence has always been provided in the form of reports: short, blistering statements that provide ministers and policymakers with timely insights into the adversary. Paper remains the basic unit of intelligence. However, different decision makers consume data in different ways. A military commander, for example, will value the speed and accuracy of information in a tactical situation. While the Secretary of Defense prefers having access to a data dashboard to inform spending on new capabilities. In building information systems, displaying and visualizing data is an important skill as drafting an intelligence report. The types of products that may be useful to government decision makers may include:

  • Investment risk assessment. An investment company registered in the Cayman Islands is seeking a stake in a British technology company. The government will want to understand the investment firm’s known past behavior, its ties to the Chinese state and whether the technology is a target for acquisition.
  • Supply Chain Assessment. The vaccine manufacturing facility has a global network of suppliers. The British government wants to understand how much future vaccine supplies will depend on the Chinese state.
  • Support for external intervention. The major shareholder of British Semiconductor Corporation is registered in Canada. The state-owned Chinese venture capital fund is seeking a majority stake in the Canadian owner. Technology transfer will enhance China’s military capability. The British Diplomatic Network requires information to support dealings with the Canadian government.

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Interference and disturbance

The UK government is developing a range of policy responses that support improved national resilience, such as the law governing inward investment. These will be necessary, but likely not sufficient. Mitigating the risks of China’s behavior may require targeted and disruptive interventions that reduce adversarial effectiveness. These interventions may require specific capabilities of the intelligence community or may be overt. They must be legal, necessary, proportionate and subject to the oversight of Ministers. They may include judicial or regulatory intervention or the use of the global diplomatic network to enable action in offshore jurisdictions, for example cooperation with the US Treasury.

The impact could increase if Chinese capabilities are thought of as networks, with interconnected nodes, rather than as stand-alone entities. The principles of network disruption are well established in the face of military formations or terrorist networks, but they have not been applied to Chinese acquisition capabilities. It requires an analytical approach that identifies weaknesses in opponent systems, on which limited resources can be focused. By analogy, a leader would seek to remove the queen bee from the hive rather than chase thousands of worker bees. RAND Corporationvulnerability assessment method It provides a useful model for structured analysis. It advocates the use of Carver’s principles to provide a numerical assessment of the various elements of the network.

Read Part Four of our Cipher Brief Special on China with Harvard Fellow Jamie Burnham in tomorrow’s Cipher Brief. You can catch Part One: Aspirations and Threat Vectors And the Part Two: Towards a Government Data Ecosystem.

Read more expert-driven insights, analysis, and perspectives on national security at cipher feed

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