Getting internet security right is key to the alliances very future.
The agenda at NATOs London summit reportedly includes talk about the future of internet security that is, establishing rules and roles for next-generation 5G gear. This is both a vital issue and a bellwether. If done right, moving to secure 5G systems can rejuvenate the alliance around its central mission: protecting democratic states from authoritarian incursion. Botch it, and the rift will onlyincrease.
Whether NATO comes together or falls apart over 5G presents an initial test of how it will handle Chinas rise. For Beijing, leapfrogging Western telecommunications firms is part and parcel of a vision to spread norms of authoritarian internet governance, promote surveillance technologies, build global dependencies, and undermine the liberal democratic order NATO anchors. U.S. officials can take several steps to help move the debate from admonition toaction.
First, NATO should allow members to count a portion of outlays on secure 5G systems towards national 2-percent defense spending goals. There are a number of ways 5G-inclusive targets could be defined, including one-time commitments or line-item funds, but if investing in technology built by trustworthy vendors is a priority for the United Statesand it should bethe alliances cost-sharing structure should reflectit.
Second, NATO should conduct thorough technical and political risk assessments on 5G networks and build shared cybersecurity standards. Last month,NATO announcedplans to update rules for civilian 5G. The United States should use this process to push for transparency requirements on the companies that build 5G networks, including disclosures on corporate ownership structures, direct government funding, and state influence and control. Whether an authoritarian government subsidizes telecommunications equipment to undercut local competitorsor controls a company to steal military, commercial, or personal datais relevant when considering allowing it to build the foundations of economic opportunity for NATO member states.
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Put simply, NATO should require participating suppliers to show credible independence from foreign governments. In addition to helping secure networks, such a requirement fosters internet governance that resists authoritarian surveillance and erects barriers to the unfettered access of private citizendata.
Third, the United States should urge its allies to consider cooperative business models and infrastructure sharing arrangements that would help member countries choose trusted-yet-costlier systems over cheaper alternatives. Some creativity may be in order here, but NATO partnerships with the EU, Finland, and Sweden could build joint funding and research models for secure 5G and even 6Gsystems.
Proposing these initiatives would add constructive action to the U.S. governmentssteadydrumbeatagainst Huawei. Concerns over Chinese-made 5G have centered on espionage, but extend to amassing sensitive personal and corporate information and leveraging internet dependence for geopolitical control. In capital after capital, U.S. diplomats have warned allies and called for outrightbans.
For the rest of NATO, these concrete steps are also more politically viable. Amid divisions within allied nations over 5G and ample pressure from China, a tenuous plausible deniability consensus may emerge: to ratchet up requirements without singling out one country or company. A recentEuropean Union risk assessment on 5G, for example, notably cautioned against threats from state actors, but stopped short of naming Chinaexplicitly.
Disunity here has real consequences. A split over cybersecurity and the varying presence of untrusted suppliers from China in member countries 5G networks threatens vital NATO military and intelligence cooperation. The United States hasalready warnedthat it will limit intelligence sharing if allies build 5G networks with Chinese equipment. In the words ofone official, the Americans will assume that everything we share with Germany will end up with theChinese.
Such an outcome would be disastrous for the alliance. A NATO intelligence-sharing rift would open the door to greater authoritarian interference in Western democracies, and not just from China. NATOs intelligence sharing and threat analysis cell is a central tenet of itsplan to combat hybrid threatsfrom Russia and others: disinformation campaigns, malign financial flows, the annexation of Crimea, and more. Given Russias long-standing goal of fracturing NATO, its no coincidence that Russian state media championsHuawei.
Democracies need a competitive offer and a competitive vision for the future internet that starts with counting trusted 5G spending towards 2-percent targets, conducting joint risk assessments, and pursuing cooperative businessmodels.
Aligning on 5G wont solve all of NATOs problems. It wont stop Chinas economic coercion of NATO members or its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and it wont stop Russias influence operations in Europe. But a failure to get 5G right most certainly will exacerbate them and bode ill for the future unity of thealliance.
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