May 9, 2023

What could possibly be less sexy than setting technical standards?

It’s a tough question, I’ll give you a minute.

Maybe, writing about setting technical standards?

But it’s one of those jobs that absolutely HAS to be done. Obviously, the technical standards are the building blocks of the digital world. If the standards are not done correctly the chances for misuse of the eventual tech that is developed is magnified immensely.  This is especially true as we stand on the cusp of a potentially paradigm shifting era in new tech with AI Quantum and Machine Learning.

Fortunately, the Biden Administration has stepped up to the plate and last week launched a new national strategy for technical standards development.  And not a moment too soon.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric around the announcement carried the implication that the US had seen this threat and was getting ahead of the problem.  That is not true.  We are losing the standards competition, just as we are the 5G competition and many others in the digital world.

Who are we losing too?  That’s an easy question, China. Redirecting the standards world to lean toward China is a fundamental part of China’s Digital Silk Road initiative and is intentionally coordinated with their attempts to reorient the financial world, the technology world and the geo-political landscape and core values away from the post-World War II US/western European axis and tilt the world toward China.

The Eurasia Group reported as far back as 2020 that China’s stated goal was to move from a standards taker to a standards maker and had already (in 2020) had signed hundreds of standards setting agreements with over 50 nations notably leaving out the traditional emphasis on integrating these standards with the United States and Europe.

Moreover, while this development may seem like an isolated and remote happenstance it is not. 

China’s digital strategy is sophisticated, integrated, and comprehensive.  For many years the Chinese government has campaigned for their ITC companies (many heavily cross subsidized by the CCP) to become more engaged in the standards setting process and these efforts have been successful. As Rob Joyce the NSA Director for cybersecurity noted recently at RSA Chinese participation in standards setting meetings tends to outnumber any other nation by 4 to 1. 

US efforts in this direction have generally been sporadic, responsive, and inadequate. One hopes that this new national strategy—which highlights some of the most important issues such as the lack of workforce – will not be similarly half-hearted as previous efforts have been.

Simply “calling on” the [private sector to help (and they should) is insufficient. Setting the standards for emerging tech is as much a national security issue as is building a new air-craft carrier – actually its more central.

In a free-market society the private sector needs to partner with the government.  But the nation’s security is foundationally a responsibility of the government.  It’s the government’s job to help build a workforce through educational efforts. 

Our government can leverage its substantial contributions to our educational system by incentivizing greater attention to technology and cybersecurity.  It can also substantially incentivize and support a dramatic influx of students into these fields by creating a national, virtual cybersecurity academy—the basic elements of which were included in last year’s national Defense Authorization Act. And government needs to provide the incentives for the private sector to displace their own inadequate staffs toward community-wide efforts such as standards setting until the adequate workforce is developed.

The Biden Administration has taken an important first step by finally focusing on this issue.  But like all long journeys, there are many next steps that need to be taken and quickly.  We are already well behind in this race.