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Russians and Chinese using human targeting – amongst other tools- to achieve security advantage in key emerging technologies by 2030

In late October, The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) issued a report warning of China’s goal to achieve a technological advantage over the U.S. in certain key emerging technologies. Beijing’s long-term goal is a strategic advantage over the U.S. and its security interests by 2030 in areas such as biotechnology, genomic technology, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. Russia is making strides in this direction as well, according to reporting by The Record, although “resource constraints have forced Moscow to focus more on indigenous efforts.”

The NCSC (a branch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) report highlights China as the “primary strategic competitor to the United States because it has a well resourced and comprehensive strategy to acquire and use technology to advance its national goals.”

The report is designed to reinforce (to government agencies and the private sector) one overarching recommendation made in the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community: that while these emerging technologies hold great promise, “they can also be economically, militarily, and socially destabilizing. For this reason, advances in technologies such as computing, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and manufacturing warrant extra attention to anticipate the trajectories of emerging technologies and understand their implications for security.”

The report explains this core objective as follows:  “NCSC outreach to emerging technology sectors is designed to raise awareness of nation-state threats and help these sectors protect their human talent and cutting-edge research, while not stifling their innovation and scientific collaboration. NCSC seeks to safeguard these technological sectors and allow their growth and development.”

It is striking this balance between the promise and the peril of emerging technologies that informs the entirety of the NCSC report. Entitled, “Protecting Critical and Emerging U.S. Technologies from Foreign Threats,” the document includes a breakdown of benefits and threats for Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Science and Technology, Semiconductors and what the NCSC terms the “ The Bioeconomy….defined as an economic activity that is driven by research and innovation in biotechnology and is further enabled by the convergence of the life sciences and data sciences (e.g., informatics, high-performance/quantum computing, and telecommunications).”

Emerging Technologies are Threat Vectors Independent of Chinese or Russian Maneuverings

Certain foreign policy subject matter experts argue that the warnings offered by the report are part of an increasingly intense “China as an Existential Threat to the U.S.” narrative – which is, ironically, single-handedly contributing to a growing technological cold war stance between the two countries. Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute, argues that “China doesn’t pose an existential threat for America, concerns over China’s rise are overblown, and that the “worst-case outcome of Chinese gains…would be a fragmented technology ecosystem that would impoverish all countries, not give China a level of power that would enable it to vanquish the United States.”

Over at Bloomberg Opinion, Professor Minxin Pei argues that the “China threat is being overhyped, the country has neither the capabilities nor the motivation to pose an existential danger to the U.S. and that “technologically, while China has made impressive strides in recent years, the U.S. continues to lead in key areas. The recent tech trade war between the two countries exposed just how vulnerable China — not the U.S. — is. U.S. sanctions have crippled China’s telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co.”

The fact remains that these counter-arguments are all made against the backdrop of China’s formal bid for global dominance of the semiconductor supply chain, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) efforts, and the organizational and technological innovation currently underway at the DoD as part of a strategic transformation to address great power competition with China and Russia.

While the debate over the threat posed by China, DoD strategic transformation efforts, and geopolitical maneuvering will undoubtedly continue, the benefits and threats inherent to the emerging technologies discussed in the NCSC report are part of an apolitical consideration unique to this period of technological innovation. The nuclear age was just that: a period marked by the singular threat of one technology to result in a scenario of mutually assured annihilation. Government agencies and the private sector would be advised to take the NCSC report into account, as these technologies represent a portfolio of deeply uncertain threat vectors, independent of the role China or Russia will play in the acceleration of their development.

From the DNI NCSC Report

The brief section from the report on the threats surrounding the semiconductor supply chain is of note:

“The global nature of the semiconductor supply chain has resulted in greater geographic concentration and interdependence, creating choke points that can result in interruptions and opportunities for foreign adversaries to impair U.S. access to trusted semiconductors. For instance, the United States is heavily dependent on a single company in Taiwan for producing its leading-edge chips and has significant dependence on China for mature node logic chips.  Since semiconductors are such key components, the fragile supply chain for semiconductors puts virtually every sector of the economy at risk of disruption.  In addition to impairing access, adversary exploitation of the supply chain also can prompt loss of trust in products, such as when counterfeit and compromised microchips appear in U.S. commercial and defense systems. Furthermore, adversaries can and have targeted critical technology, intellectual property, and human talent from the U.S. semiconductor industry, resulting in substantial losses. U.S. access to trusted and assured state-of-the-art semiconductor technologies is essential for the development of AI, 5G, autonomous systems, and other technologies of the future.”

According to the report, the following are the tools used by both Russia and China for “foreign technology acquisition”:

  • Intelligence services
  • Science and technology investments
  • International scientific collaboration
  • Academic collaboration
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Joint ventures and business partnerships
  • Research partnerships
  • Foreign investments
  • Front companies
  • Government-to-government agreements
  • Legal and regulatory actions
  • Non-traditional collectors (including co-opted insiders)
  • Talent recruitment programs

“Non-traditional collectors (including co-opted insiders)” and “talent recruitment programs” are tools in a toolkit broadly known as “human targeting” – which seems to get the least amount of coverage when talking about the mechanics of trade secret theft or economic espionage.  The report is specific on the question of how countries are targeting people in the “Quantum Information Science and Technology” space: “U.S. strategic competitors are recruiting America’s human talent to advance their quantum programs. Some foreign nations spend substantially more than the United States on their quantum initiatives, putting them better positioned to recruit individuals;” and in AI: “Human talent…are targets of foreign nations seeking to enhance their own AI capabilities. Ultimately, AI is dependent on data, and the ability of adversaries to deny access to or corrupt such data poses potential vulnerabilities.”

According to the FBI, the Chinese are particularly adept at and committed to talent plans:  “Foreign governments sponsor talent recruitment programs, or talent plans, to bring outside knowledge and innovation back to their countries—and sometimes that means stealing trade secrets, breaking export control laws, or violating conflict-of-interest policies to do so.  While various countries use talent plans, the Chinese government is the most prolific sponsor of these programs—and the United States is one of China’s main targets.  The U.S. welcomes international collaboration in academic and scientific research and business development. But American businesses, universities, and laboratories should understand the potential risks and illegal conduct incentivized by Chinese talent plans and take steps to safeguard their trade secrets and intellectual property.”

Further Resources:

A direct link to the DNI NCSC report: Protecting Critical and Emerging U.S. Technologies from Foreign Threats.

A direct link to the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community: 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community

For more on Supply Chain Risk Management, see Supply Chain Threats (dni.gov)

For more on how the FBI frames what they call “The China Threat” and Chinese Talent Plans, see The China Threat — FBI

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.