Redefine National Security

Redefine National Security
Recently, I had a discussion on national security. I invited the group to determine what the adjective national and the noun security it qualifies mean? How are the internal and external dynamics of these concepts enmeshed? It was amazing to see how people — and I am speaking of educated, experienced functionaries of the state — assume the meanings of certain concepts while ignoring multiple other facets of the same concepts.

For instance, we seem to be grounded still in what I would call the pre-digital, pre-info and pre-biotech concepts of national security, the old 20th Century (and earlier) paradigm of inter-state relations and how a state must secure itself. While, in some cases, there is a vague sense of new opportunities and challenges, the realisation hasn’t really set in. That also means that notwithstanding our constant talk about national security, we haven’t given much thought to where the world is headed and how those changes will impact security and state-society relations.

Elsewhere, these issues are being consistently debated and analysed. In 2018, the historian Yuval Noah Harari predicted in an article for The Atlantic that we are headed towards a post-liberal world. His thesis — also contained in his book, 21 Questions for the 21st Century — is simple: there’s nothing inevitable about democracies and “infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.”
Digital technologies are making humans irrelevant. This means a movement towards a different kind of tyranny

According to him, 20th Century technology favoured democracy; 21st Century, doesn’t. Man will become, for the most part, irrelevant. While it is debatable how much of the current political tribalism and the voices against liberal democracy have to do with advances in bio- or infotech, the combination of what’s happening on the street and what’s unfolding is likely to be a move away from individual choices that underpinned the struggles in the last three centuries and reached their pinnacle in what Fukuyama described as The End of History.

A few days ago, a dear friend, a math aficionado, gave me a small book to read. Titled Weapons of Math Destruction, the 2016 book is by Cathy O’ Neil, a math PhD from Harvard who chucked away her tenured post and joined a hedge fund. She has since moved to work as a data scientist for various start-ups. I am more than halfway through that book and already beset by trepidation mode. Here’s why.

What do we think when we think about numbers and, if we know a little bit more about that language, about algorithms? Neat, structured, uncluttered stuff, very different from messy social sciences work; stuff that only the ivory tower club understands, what we use to make bridges, fly planes, send off space probes or invent machines that make our lives so different from the medieval or ancient times?

Well, if you think that, you are in for a very rude shock. Math in the abstract is very different from math in the service of Big Data and that data now impacts almost every aspect of our lives, not just buying stuff from Amazon or making Google searches but whether we are fit to hold a job (the example of ‘bad’ teachers being fired in the schools in Washington D.C.), have a good credit score, can pay our mortgage, can lease a car et cetera. “[The weapons of math destruction] define their own reality and use it to justify their results. This type of model is self-perpetuating, highly destructive — and very common…. [They score you and] instead of searching for the truth, the score comes to embody it.”

O’Neil discusses many cases, including, for instance, crime prediction models that have become popular with police departments in the US. All of this begins in good faith, like the Reading Police Department in Pennsylvania trying to control crime. But what she worries about is how such models take on their own life and generate their own dynamics (which she calls the “pernicious feedback loop”). There’s much else in the book about how Big Data impacts our lives, which we don’t even know or fathom. A lot of it creates our digital conveniences; a lot of it is destructive. In most cases, our lives are now governed by algorithms and if we happen to fall on the wrong side of them, there’s no appeal before those gods.

China is already using Big Data to assign social credit scores to its citizens. For most of its citizens, life has become much better than under Mao or even under Deng Xiaoping, the engineer of China’s miracle. But this is only for those whose Sesame Credit places them in the strong-user base category. Jack Ma’s Alibaba decides the lives of many millions of Chinese.

The problem is this: if algorithms are deciding peoples’ lives, and if they get things wrong, a person is penalised and because (s)he is penalised, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to get back on track. Or as O’Neil identified in her description of teachers fired in Washington D.C., “Joblessness pushed them toward poverty, which further worsens their scores, making it harder for them to land a job.”

This becomes a vicious cycle.

So, there are two problems in this for old definitions of national security: the internal and the external. Internally, digital technologies are making humans irrelevant. This means a movement towards a different kind of tyranny. Externally, other emerging technologies are poised to change the way states compete, interact and go to war. It does not require a major argument to posit that internal changes will also impact external relations, which will also be influenced by inter-state competition.

Some of these technologies are unfolding and any possibilities can only be talked about in terms of potential. Others, like hypersonic missiles, lethal autonomous weapons, Artificial Narrow Intelligence, Internet of Things, armed drones, blockchain, quantum computing etc are already in play and changing the nature of threats as well as responses. But regardless of the trajectory, one thing is clear: technology, as always, will drive strategy and strategy in turn will push technology to deliver more. For states, as also the militaries, gaining an asymmetric advantage remains unchanged.

Meanwhile, there are other threats: pandemics, climate change. Traditional security never really listed them until about 15 years ago. That has changed, though not here. Covid-19 is a case in point. It has already shaved off billions from the entertainment, tourism and aviation sectors and now threatens to slow down economies because of lockdowns.

There’s much more that one can talk about in terms of why our concept of national security must undergo a major change. But this very sketchy account will perhaps do for now.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times and believes that the paradox in human affairs is the only irony to watch. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.