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- The top US counterintelligence agency recently published a list of five tech sectors it says are vital to US interests.
- Those sectors are also vulnerable to adversaries, according to the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
- That tech “that may determine whether America remains the world’s leading superpower,” the NCSC says.
The US’s top counterintelligence and security agency recently published a list of five technology sectors vital to US national and economic security that it says are vulnerable to malicious actors and adversaries.
According to the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, those five prized sectors are artificial intelligence, bioeconomy, autonomous systems, quantum information science and technology, and semiconductors.
“These sectors produce technologies that may determine whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors in the next few years,” the NCSC says.
Although the threat mainly comes from near-peer adversaries, such as China and Russia, it isn’t limited to those countries. In addition to publishing the list, the US intelligence community is contacting private industry with advice and training to protect US national security and the US’s competitive advantages.
Artificial intelligence is a constellation of technologies that demonstrate cognition and creative problem-solving, essentially enabling machines to perform the tasks of humans.
Uses for AI range from narrow applications designed to solve specific problems to broad applications, such as Artificial General Intelligence, that have the potential to match or even exceed the understanding and learning abilities of humans.
Artificial intelligence also has many military applications. The F-35 stealth fighter jet relies heavily on artificial intelligence for many of its functions. Compromising that technology could undermine or negate many of the jet’s capabilities.
Artificial intelligence is also key to bulk data collection. The NSA, for example, uses it to quickly process and help analyze the immense amount of data it collects daily.
Quantum information science and technology
This technology uses the fundamental properties of matter to create new information technologies. For example, quantum computers use atoms and photons to accelerate some kinds of problem-solving.
Quantum-related technology has been used in the development of semiconductor microelectronics, the global positioning system, and magnetic resonance imaging.
Quantum technology could also have a critical impact on cryptography, or the encryption and decryption of communications. Were China to gain an advantage in quantum, it could target the essential encrypted communications of the US military, intelligence agencies, and private sector.
“In short, whoever wins the race for quantum computing supremacy could potentially compromise the communications of others,” the NCSC states.
Bioeconomy is economic activity related to and driven by research and innovation in biotechnology.
The US bioeconomy improves many aspects of daily life, such as food and healthcare. It can also present a serious threat to national security and even humanity.
China is aggressively collecting domestic and foreign DNA material to gain an advantage in biotechnology and for more sinister reasons. The uniqueness of DNA makes it virtually impossible for a person or group to hide from an oppressive surveillance state like China.
Genomic technology that is designed to treat diseases can also be used against specific individuals or whole populations.
These small pieces of technology have become essential to most aspects of modern life, powering military technology such as satellites and stealth fighter jet and consumer products integral to everyday activity, such as TV and toasters.
The lighter, faster, and cheaper a semiconductor is, the better it is, and global nature of the semiconductor supply chain raises challenges to ensuring steady access for the US, which is reliant on Taiwan and China for most of those chips.
Adversaries have targeted the US semiconductor industry, draining talent and resources, and future attacks on that supply chain could further undermine the US economy.
“Since semiconductors are such key components, the fragile supply chain for semiconductors puts virtually every sector of the economy at risk of disruption,” the NCSC says.
Unmanned systems perform tasks without or with limited human intervention or control, though many of them, such as remotely piloted aircraft or unmanned undersea vehicles, require some human involvement.
Such systems can improve productivity and safety for humans, but those systems’ reliance on software, computing, and connectivity creates opportunities for malicious cyberattacks against them. They’re also vulnerable to supply-chain disruptions.
Foreign and malicious actors can also target autonomous systems for intelligence gathering, using malicious software to compromise them.
Beijing and Moscow
China and Russia are the main threats to the above five tech sectors.
Beijing seeks global leadership in those and other technologies by 2030, and has pursued that goal through several avenues, including legal means and outright theft. The Kremlin also views the development of advanced science and technology as national security and strategic priority.
Both countries employ various methods to get their hands on such technologies, including operations by their intelligence services, investments in private companies, promotion of academic collaboration and research partnerships, and luring top talent.
A transformation in intelligence collection is driving Beijing’s and Moscow’s targeting of these five sectors. During the Cold War, adversary intelligence agencies went after classified military and intelligence secrets, but now they have shifted toward the private sector.
“If you look back 20 years ago, what we were most concerned about was intelligence services targeting the US government for classified information or targeting DOD technologies,” Mike Orlando, acting director of the NCSC, said in an interview earlier this year.
“What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is the shift to private-sector intellectual-property research and development, particularly by China, who has been the most egregious one in stealing those technologies,” Orlando added.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.