It’s been another busy month for CSET’s researchers! Our experts continue to weigh in on the biggest news in national security and emerging technology, from protecting U.S. intellectual property from foreign adversaries to semiconductor competition between the United States and China.
Surprises are still arising from the SolarWinds cyber attack, including revelations that the hackers gained access to files of the U.S. court system. Observers are still trying to divine the motivations of Russia, the presumed perpetrator of the attack. The Associated Press spoke to Ben Buchanan, director of CSET’s CyberAI Project, for his thoughts. “I don’t think we know what motivated the Russians in this case to target the court system — whether it was a target of opportunity enabled by this SolarWinds breach, or whether it was a … priority,” Buchanan told the AP. While some argued the perpetrators could have had financial motivations, Buchanan disagreed. He said that the Russians were unlikely to sell trade secrets stolen during the attack; instead, he thinks the goal was good, old-fashioned statecraft and espionage.
In other major hacking news, an as-yet-unknown perpetrator gained access to an Oldsmar, Florida, water-treatment plant’s computer systems and attempted to poison the city’s water supply. Scientific American interviewed Buchanan in the aftermath of the breach. He offered his thoughts on the potential identity of the hacker (or hackers) involved, what made Oldsmar’s systems vulnerable, and what observers should take away from the attack.
President Biden’s National Security Council is taking shape, and observers are looking at the work of its newly-appointed key staff to gain a sense of their thinking. Tarun Chhabra, now NSC senior director for technology and national security, was a senior fellow at CSET until last month. In an article profiling several of the new NSC team members, including Chhabra, Axios’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian cited three CSET reports: China’s Access to Foreign AI Technology by Wm. C. Hannas and Huey-Meei Chang, Agile Alliances: How the United States and Its Allies Can Deliver a Democratic Way of AI by Andrew Imbrie, Ryan Fedasiuk, Catherine Aiken, Chhabra and Husanjot Chahal, and Open-Source Intelligence for S&T Analysis by Chhabra, Hannas, Dewey Murdick and Anna Puglisi. The Wall Street Journal also weighed in on the implications of Chhabra’s appointment and what it says about the Biden administration’s strategic focus.
In his final days as president, Donald Trump issued a memo to federal agencies, universities and scientists about defending government-supported research from foreign interference. Science Magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis reached out to CSET Senior Fellow Melissa Flagg for her thoughts on the memo and the Biden administration’s strategy for protecting domestic research from China and other U.S. competitors. Flagg argued that a legal approach to protecting U.S. research is insufficient. “[W]hat research institutions really need is help in assessing their security risks and suggestions for nonpunitive ways to respond to the threats they are facing,” she said. She cautioned that onerous requirements might persuade researchers to shun federal funding entirely, hurting U.S. research even more in the long run. She added that more needed to be done to protect research being funded by sources other than the federal government, which funds only 22 percent of the country’s research overall.
Federal Drive Podcast
Science Magazine wasn’t the only place Melissa Flagg discussed economic espionage and U.S. research and development security. She joined Tom Temin on his Federal Drive podcast to share thoughts on how to protect U.S. intellectual property and what the U.S. government can do to protect both government-funded research and the much bigger cache of private research.
The Wire China
While China’s domestic semiconductor industry still lags behind the world’s leading producers — Taiwan, South Korea and the United States — it is quickly gaining ground. For a cover story on the United States’ efforts to block the Chinese purchase of an advanced chipmaking machine, The Wire China spoke to CSET Research Analyst Will Hunt about the strategic importance of the semiconductor industry. “Semiconductors underpin basically all advanced tech,” Hunt told Tim De Chant. “For China, that includes some problematic cases, such as using AI for military uses or developing hypersonic missiles. The possibilities for surveillance are also pretty concerning. Having leverage over these cases is really important.”
War on the Rocks
As emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics begin to show greater impact worldwide, national security analysis has seen an infusion of “technology futurist” thinking, argue John Speed Meyers and David Jackson in War on the Rocks. They cite CSET as one of the institutions doing the most to elevate the conversation around AI policy and “make the futurist discourse prominent” in national security analysis and policymaking.
In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would help China build its own missile attack early warning system, a sign of the deepening relationship between the two authoritarian powers. CSET Research Fellow Margarita Konaev discussed that deal in a recent interview with Newsy. The deal “means that Russian scientists now have access to secret Chinese capabilities,” Konaev said. “So in a sense, China is opening itself to Russia in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine between two powers that have not necessarily have had close ties before.” The transfer of knowledge has also flowed the other way, Konaev noted. After the United States spurned Chinese tech giant Huawei, the company began investing heavily in Russia. “It’s collaborating with universities. It’s developing closer ties with a lot of the Russian technical firms. And it also has an interest in Russian talent,” she said. “It aims to train about 50,000 people with technical skills.”
With AI becoming an increasingly robust economic force, the benefits redound disproportionately to economic powerhouses — such as the United States, China, and the European Union — according to a recent paper from researchers at Cornell, Universite de Montreal, the National Institute of Statistical Sciences and Princeton. Both the original article and a VentureBeat story covering its findings cited the December issue brief by Roxanne Heston and Remco Zwetsloot, Mapping U.S. Multinationals’ Global AI R&D Activity, which found that while AI labs tend to be located outside the United States — 42 of 62 major labs counted by Heston and Zwetsloot were abroad — nearly 70 percent of research staff were still located within the United States.