“The Machine needed more information. People’s social graph, their associations. The government had been trying to figure it out for years. Turns out most people were happy to volunteer it.” -Harold Finch, Person of Interest
Where the driving conflict between the Americans and the Soviets was the clash between Capitalism and Communism, the Sino-American Cold War will be driven less by the economic styles endorsed by democracies and authoritarians and more by the new currencies of the modern world. These are not Dollars or Renminbi, but rather information. How governments and corporations alike handle the wealth of information put out into the world by every person on this planet will become one of the central struggles of the new cold war. Who controls the world’s information, and who sets it free, will become a key point of ideological friction between the two Pacific powers. The fact remains that in the 21st century, no other rights may be guaranteed without the free and unrestricted flow of information between private citizens. The basis for freedom in the 21st century is the freedom of information. It is not simply the right to your own information but the right to be forgotten. The right to not have your personal information 3D printed into a gun and pressed to your forehead.
Imagine if all the world’s most most potent weapons were taken from their owners and placed in between the two Pacific Powers, like balls at the beginning of a game of dodgeball. The weapons in this case are various kinds of information. Personal information for manipulation and blackmail. for targeted propaganda on a massive scale, data that can be used to create narratives to disarm a population through disarray and division. Or the most dangerous of all, data that can be used to teach not humans but their budding artificial intelligence programs. The Sino-American arms race is more than ships and hypersonic vehicles, it’s a race to weaponize all of the data that defines humanity. Nukes are great but with the right code and spreadsheet you can reach out and touch anyone on the planet, at a fraction of the cost and with much greater precision than even the most advanced GPS allows.
We are already beginning to see how Beijing wants to use its data weapons. It is actively deploying machine learning and data collection to control and influence the actions and even thoughts of its population through its much hyped social credit program. By using the same rewards and punishments one might associate with financial credit or an addictive mobile game, the CCP has developed a population control apparatus that is the stuff of cyberpunk dystopian nightmares. For Beijing life is not something to be set free and lived but to be controlled for the better of the Party.
But Beijing has not stopped at the collection of digital information, no in the case of the region of Xinjiang, Beijing has essentially bagged and tagged an entire population so that they might be tracked, oppressed, and in the case of some million Uighurs, incarcerated in concentration camps. The fever dreams of the Nazis and Soviets have finally been realized through Beijing’s application of the technologies so celebrated in the West. And once Beijing controls its domestic population, it has every intention of setting its sights on those abroad. In fact, it has already begun to target some disruptive foreigners and expats.
For Beijing and other totalitarian regimes, control is not just about “harmony” within its borders. No, the image of the party must be protected around the world, lest the perpetrator of disharmony feel the wrath of Beijing. Not only does the CCP use nationalists abroad to target and harass its opponents, it uses information operations in a manner similar to the way the Russians worked in the run up to the 2016 election. In fact, China has successfully used a blend of HUMINT ops and info ops to influence political discourse in Australia,a close ally of the United States and member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. And with the success of Russian operations in the United States, the lack of a spotlight on Chinese activities in the US, and the ever increasing division of the American population, we can expect to see greater information offensives in the years to come. And so the battle over information rights and protections is not one of simple constitutional debate, it is a matter of survival. Every bit of information we leave in the ether, that we leave for companies to sell to whomever they choose, every bit of source code a corporation gives to Beijing, every inch of fiber optics in our infrastructure built by a Chinese company is a potential weapon to be turned back on us as our enemies seek to control us and impose their will abroad.
In the long term, however, the even greater threat to America and freedom around the world is the growth and development of artificial intelligence by those who would use it to oppress and destroy. As the use and capabilities of AI expand around the Pacific in everything from toasters to weapons systems, lines must be drawn regarding the use of AI to influence the public. The use of deep fakes and chat bots will soon reach a point where they are no longer novelties but rather tools of the state to influence, agitate, and repress. How can a government manage a war effort or election in its own country if the public is influenced by AI generated “fake news” at a rate that is beyond its control. The greatest threat to a democracy is an uninformed public, and if the information given to the public is intentionally manipulative and misleading, how can the public rely on its leaders in times of crisis? If we are to remain a free people and keep the torch of freedom lit around the world, we must remain an informed people with an informed leadership. And in order to do that we must develop controls to not only prevent the disruption of our information cycles by our enemies at home and abroad but we must also reverse engineer such disruptive techniques to create even greater chaos in the lands of the authoritarians.
In summary, the Sino-American Cold War will not simply feature an arms race of missiles and ships, but of the very building block of modern life: data. Now, we cannot horde all of the world’s information or keep our AI and personal information locked up in black boxes forever. No, we must be able to protect ourselves and our information once it is already out in the wild. Information is not a coded weapon, it is not something that can only be used against a single target. No, whoever controls it can aim it in whatever direction they please in whatever form they desire. Pandora’s box is already open, and has been for some time. But that does not mean we are powerless. In fact, we can take steps to manage the wealth of data and knowledge that is put out into the ether every day. We can control who and what profit off of our information, we can control where information can be stored and who can store it and with what protections. We can control who invests in AI and with whom, we can manage the transfer of knowledge and technology between democratic states and authoritarian threats. And as we begin to reign in the flood of data, knowledge, and cash that has put in the hands of our enemies, then we can begin to shape our own defenses, our own weapons, so that we may guard freedom for another generation.