#4 Another Democracy Paradox
Lab leak theory,high-tech industrial espionage,politics on social media and social media in politics, anti-drone systems
Matsyanyaaya #1: Not That Cold War
The Wuhan lab-leak theory peaked last month. Last week, a group of scientists provided evidence in favour of a spillover from an animal host outside the Wuhan Lab. Such claims and counter-claims will continue in the run-up to August 27 deadline, by which time the US intelligence community is to come out with its assessment.
In this edition, I want to focus on one of the many angles of this issue: the geopolitical fallout of this investigation. On this count, my assessment is that the die has already been cast, regardless of the path that further investigation takes.
Even if China were to comply with an investigation — a highly unlikely scenario— that ends up upholding its case, this will mean little geopolitically. Doubts about China erasing evidence in the months gone by will still linger. On the other hand, China not providing access for further investigation will strengthen the lab-leak narrative, but the result will remain inconclusive without on-ground access.
Geopolitically, this feeds into the ongoing confrontation narrative between China and its adversaries. Nothing surprising here. But more importantly, this case increases the chances of technological decoupling between the west and China.
This is a significant change because despite the rhetoric on US-China confrontation, the scientific collaboration between the two countries has only grown. This collaboration has been a fertile ground for two reasons. One, the size and capability of China’s own scientific establishment. And two, China’s system allowed for collection and aggregation of data that sometimes is difficult in the US. These two factors meant that the US-China tech relationship has been nothing like the US-USSR relationship in the past.
Writing for the New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells makes this point well:
“..the dangerous research at the heart of the lab-leak hypothesis was conducted largely in the spirit of basic cooperation and coordination, even though both countries regarded it as sensitive work bound up in national-security interests. This is a basic confusion of the whole “new Cold War” framework: The two most powerful countries in the world are, transparently, rivals, and yet they are also, in almost inextricable ways, partners. They are not — as the Cold War analogy suggests — competitive, self-contained empires operating from incompatible ideologies and separated by an Iron Curtain; they are something much more complicated and intertwined, if not quite one economy ruled by two governments. The midcentury U.S. did not import its prescription drugs from the Soviet Union, or the equivalent of its flatscreen TVs and iPhones, and if a Hollywood actor made an offhand remark about the refugees who fled the Russian revolution he wasn’t shamed into recanting — in Russian.”
So, at the margin, scientists from other countries are less likely to risk collaboration with China, lest such projects be called into question later. The costs will now start outweighing the benefits of collaboration.
There might be other auxiliary effects as well. To fill the void left by China, biologists might seek other collaborators from other less adversarial countries. India should see this shift as an opportunity to strengthen cooperation on new biology. Whatever the result of the investigation, the wheels of geopolitics have been set in motion. India should raise its game — biotech is one area where India has pockets of deep expertise.
Matsyanyaaya #2: The Spy in your Office
High-tech industrial espionage is nothing new and in one form or another it has always been at the centre of covert geopolitical competition. This type of competition is by its very nature a cross-domain exercise, one that almost all nations engage in.
The individuals, assets or agents used to accomplish these tasks don’t necessarily learn the craft of spies either, but are only exploited as sources of secret information in exchange for petty favours and rewards. However, due to the conveniences of the digital age, much of an organisation’s information and work is stored on networked computer systems, which makes them susceptible to cyber attackers looking to steal secrets including intellectual property (IP) across domains. This makes human intelligence sources (HUMINT) and cyber intelligence (CYBINT) equally important.
Advances in genetically modified (GMO) seeds mark one of the most revolutionary developments of our times.
It’s no surprise that, in recent years, one of the most prolific cases of intellectual property (IP) theft in the GMO seed industry is the saga of a Chinese citizen who studied and later worked in the US. Mo Hailong, who went by the name Robert Mo in the West, was the subject of considerable surveillance and later prosecution and incarceration by the US Government for stealing highly inbred varieties of corn seeds which US agrotech companies Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer and LG Seeds had planted in their contracted fields.
Mo was tasked by the Chinese company Nower Seed to seek out parent seeds of the advance GMO varieties and send them back to China where they could be replicated. Parent seeds are the stock of genetically modified variety that is planted in order to produce seeds. Mo and his accomplices packaged the stolen parent GMO seeds inside boxes of commercially available popcorn in an effort to disguise them and take them back to China.
The Space Plane Saga
Last month, Japanese police apprehended a seventy-year-old man Kazuo Miyasaka. Miyasaka allegedly supplied documents related to advanced weapons systems and other hardware to Russian spies in Japan for over thirty years. These advance systems and weapons included the US military’s cutting edge unmanned spacecraft X-37B, Radar systems and military drones etc. A member of the trade representative mission of the Russian embassy in Japan was identified to be questioned by police, but he left the country before he could be brought in.
Miyasaka was recruited by the alleged Russian agents in the 90s when he had just started his once flourishing technical research firm after graduating from an engineering school. The first contact made by alleged Russian agents came to him with an interest in his thesis. At its peak his firm employed thirty people and brought in over three hundred million Yen yearly. He fell on hard times later in life and sold secrets in exchange for a paltry sum of ten million yen or about ninety thousand US dollars spread over thirty years.
Russian Researcher Detained in Germany
In another case in Germany, a university researcher has been arrested, allegedly for being in contact with Russian intelligence agents. German authorities have not revealed which university he worked for or what department, but his work is understood to involve a high-tech domain.
When China Spies on Russia
While China and Russia typically target their adversaries, China doesn’t shrink from stealing Russian IP. Recently, Russia’s Rubin design bureau, which is the bastion of Russian submarine design and construction enterprise, was targeted by Chinese cyberattacks. Like most attacks of its kind executed remotely, the hack involved duping an individual with access to a workstation connected to Rubin’s network into opening an infected email attachment to implant a vulnerability which was further exploited to steal classified data.
Cyberpolitik: Politics on Social Media and Social Media in Politics
Back in 2012, writing about the ‘consequences of the Internet for politics’ Henry Farell concluded (emphasis added):
the relationship between the Internet and politics will become increasingly important for the discipline. Paradoxically, it is likely that there will be ever fewer scholars specializing in the Internet and politics. However, this will not be because political scientists will lose interest in the Internet and related technologies. Rather, it will be because these technologies have become so integrated into regular political interactions that it will be impossible to study, e.g., the politics of fundraising, election advertising, political action, public diplomacy, or social movements without paying close attention to the Internet.
While it is hard to quantify whether there are (in relative terms) fewer or more scholars specialising in the Internet and politics today than there were nine years ago (it sure seems like there are a lot of us running around, talking about the internet 🙂), the assertion that the internet will be deeply embedded across a whole sphere of political activities seems to have held. It is notable, and perhaps a reflection of the time, that the only two questions Farell considered were whether polarisation in the US increased or not and the Internet’s role in the Arab Spring.
A shift is visible in recent literature on the subject. Eight years later, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Maria Petrova and Ruben Enikolopov reviewed the ‘political effects of the Internet and Social Media’. First, they identified ‘social media’ as having two defining features that differentiate it from ‘traditional offline media’ - low barriers to entry and reliance on user-generated content. They also expanded the set of considerations to cover (I’ve included summarised versions of their conclusions for each) -
Voting: The use of social media can increase voter turnout and result in greater support for populists and lower support for incumbents in ‘immature democracies and semi-autocratic regimes’.
Protests: Low entry barriers make social media suitable for facilitating protests.
Polarisation: Lack of causal evidence linking social media to increased polarisation (for individuals/groups not already prone to political partisanship).
Xenophobia: Correlation between extreme speech and hate crimes.
False news: False news does spread on social media and is faster. However, its persuasive effects are not fully known.
Politicians’ behaviour: Social media usage does affect politicians’ behaviour offline, but there is insufficient literature to suggest this has resulted in more accountability (Aside: It would have been interesting to also look at the literature around how politicians themselves have responded to ‘incentives for performance’ on social media).
This leads to another question: how does social media affect different regimes? Guy Schleffer and Benjamin Miller sought to address just in a recently published paper.
Weak authoritarian regimes
The authors used Egypt as a case-study
social media can have a destabilizing political effect in weak authoritarian regimes. Social media (a liberalizing force) can help to create and mobilize domestic opposition by making it easier to alert and connect people who have shared interests. It also helps people to organize more easily and lets protesters know that they are not alone. Facebook’s filter bubbles may help to convince people that there is more support for their position than there really is, thus generating a self-fulfilling prophecy that drives people to the streets.
Weak democratic regimes
Brazil was the case-study candidate
social media platforms have a radicalizing effect in weak liberal democracies, facilitating the rise of populist candidates who erode the country’s democratic norms and institutions and may lead to regime change. Social media is a playground for spreading fake news and narratives that are polarizing, divisive and anti-liberal — without the fact-checking filter of the traditional media. It helps populists to aggregate and unify people to promote a shared cause against the liberal establishment or the corrupt elites, positioning themselves as worthy alternatives to the existing governments
Strong authoritarian regimes
Unsurprisingly, China (and, to some extent, Russia) was used for this case study. I thought these were odd choices since the focus was on American social media platforms (also see: Cyberpolitik: Porous Censorship from Technopolitik #3)
social media platforms may intensify the power of strong authoritarian regimes by helping them, directly and indirectly, to become digital dictatorships. They use the knowledge power of compliant platforms as part of their surveillance machine while blocking those platforms that refuse to play by their rules.
Strong democratic regimes
Social media platforms can be used to weaken strong liberal-democratic regimes. These regimes derive their power from liberal-democratic institutions, which need constant attention and reinforcement in order to serve as effective bulwarks of democracy. It is also important to keep the media free, unbiased, and devoid of fake news and disinformation. The spread of fake news and disinformation on social media as part of malign “perception management” orchestrated by domestic populists and external forces may weaken liberal-democratic regimes.
So, what can liberal democracies do? The authors suggest that they are ‘constrained’ in the methods they can employ and need to ensure that they have robust checks and balances in place. This lines up with Thomas Rid’s position that democracies cannot simultaneously be good at democracy and disinformation.
Homework: See if you can replicate their methodology to determine where some other countries might lie and if this framework holds. Reach out to me on Twitter with what you found (@prateekwaghre).
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Game of Drones:Shoot them Down
On 27 June, 2021, a drone carrying Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) lightly injured two uniformed personnel at an Air Force installation in Jammu. Despite warnings about the threat of small drones, India was caught off guard.
Small drones used for terrorism have a radar cross section (RCS) as low as a bird’s, which present Indian air defence systems are incapable of detecting. Moreover, these drones are flown at low altitudes, allowing them to evade radar sweeps. Detecting and intercepting these threats requires specialised counter-drone systems.
The Israeli Smash 2000 Plus anti-drone system, Mi-17V5, Mi-17 choppers, Apache attack helicopters, Israeli Spyder, and Russian OSA-AK are all potent counter-drone systems accessible to India. The indigenous D-4 counter drone system developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) also has the ability to destroy rogue drones like the one used at Jammu Air Force Station. This system, which was first deployed during the 72nd Republic Day security preparations, integrates both “soft-kill” technologies which can jam communication or navigation signals, and “hard-kill” technologies which can physically destroy a drone. According to Ms. Jillelamudi Manjula, Director General- Electronics and Communication Systems (DG-ECS), DRDO, it “is capable of destroying micro-drones by jamming the command and control links” and rendering them unresponsive. It also has a laser for hard kills.
As small, commercial, off-the-shelf UAVs become widely available, more technologically advanced, less detectable, less expensive, and more adaptable for terrorism, India must invest in developing drone monitoring equipment which can help to detect, identify, locate and track a drone. “Prevention can be done by early detection only”, emphasizes the DRDO DG-ECS.
Detection, identification, tracking and alerting together make for holistic drone monitoring equipment (DME). A DME can either be active or passive. A system which sends a signal and analyses the return signal is an active DME while a passive DME simply listens or looks out for drones. While detection is necessary, it is not sufficient because the radar which detects the drone might also detect birds and other small objects. Hence, classification and identification of the object as friend or foe is also a significant component of a robust DME, especially for attribution and prosecution purposes. An inbuilt tracker and alert system will help authorities to know the exact location of the alien UAV and deploy ‘killer’ technologies to destroy it.
The following are the types of drone monitoring equipment currently available:
If you have any suggestions for us, please leave a comment. We are eager to learn.
Our Reading Menu
The Political Effects of Social Media Platforms on Different Regime Types
by Guy Schleffer and Benjamin Miller
John J Klein’s The Influence of Commercial Space Capabilities on Deterrence
Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space by James Clay Moltz.
Death from above: How criminal organizations’ use of drones threatens Americans by Michael Sinclair
The Perfect Weapon: war, sabotage, and fear in the cyber age by David E Sanger
Hunter Killer: Inside the Lethal World of Drone Warfare by Kevin Maurer and Kevin McCurley