The focus of Australia’s cyber diplomacy is expanding to include “grand strategy in technology”, as well as engagement with technology firms and governments.
Rapidly maturing technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum computing will “shift fundamentally the global balance of power”, according to Dr Tobias Feakin, Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs.
“Those [nations] that really are at the forefront of AI and the way that it works will genuinely be at the forefront of the emerging 21st century economy,” he told the Australian Cybersecurity Conference, or CyberCon, in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Some nations are already positioning themselves to take advantage of these technologies.
“Geopolitics now is being shaped and harnessed in a way that we probably didn’t think conceivable a decade ago,” Feakin said.
“We need to be thinking about grand strategy in technology. How do we ensure that we’re plugging into this conversation and the kinds of areas that are shaping technology, not only the technology development itself, but the kinds of legislation that shape the absorption of that technology into the global environment,” he said.
“It’s an enormous challenge.”
The “canary in the coal mine” in these matters has been what Feakin coyly referred to as “the 5G issue”.
Although Feakin didn’t name China, it’s clear that he was alluding to Australia’s ban on the use of 5G technology from Chinese companies such as Huawei. Australia’s foreign minister said in March that the ban was a “resolved” question.
“From where I sit, that is the first of many different technology issues that are going to come online where we need to be on the front foot and ensuring that we have national security interests, economic interests, and indeed societal interests at heart,” Feakin said.
“I think many states are struggling with that … Are countries going to learn when 6G comes online, for example, or are the same mistakes going to be made around the world? We’re not sure.”
Australia has also started to engage with the tech sector directly, which Feakin described as being the “enormous companies that have [been] built up, making huge profits out of the data economy and the online space”.
“Those companies now often have the same kind of sway as states themselves in terms of the way that they shape ideas and thinking and indeed global trends,” he said.
“They are some of the most fundamental shapers of our time.”
This engagement with non-government entities represents a significant shift in diplomatic strategy.
Until recently, Australia’s diplomatic efforts in the cyber realm had been focused primarily on national security matters, and working in the United Nations and elsewhere to establish international norms of behaviour in cyberspace.
Australia has been part of multinational diplomatic efforts to call out bad behaviour by officially attributing cyber attacks to specific nations. Overall, the aim of Australia’s cyber diplomacy strategy has been to promote an “open, free, and secure cyberspace”.
But those core principles are now being challenged, Feakin said.
“There are certain states that look to target us actively, and they’ve seen basically the freedoms that we enjoy in the online space as a fundamental weakness which they’re looking to take advantage of and ensure that they can position themselves for the coming 21st century,” he said.
“We’re on the cusp of change, and if we’re not engaging and if we are not promoting our interests right now, then we will be shaped by everything that’s to come.”
Australia must work in the “broad technology space” to “promote Australian interests” rather than “values and principles that don’t really resonate with ourselves living in a liberal democracy”.