It is 2025, and a few nations are attempting to control the use of powerful quantum computing. Its rapid development has ignored ethical concerns, and the technology falls into the hands of criminals. Leading nations pursue a policy of containment, in line with their approach to nuclear weaponry.
This ‘Quantum Leap’ scenario is one of four detailed in the Cybersecurity Futures 2025 report. Steven Weber, Faculty Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, co-developed these scenarios to spur discussion about possible security challenges in the future.
GovInsider spoke to Weber to understand how today’s political climate will shape the future of tech and cybersecurity.
More rules, less freedom
“Digital geopolitics is no longer a layer superimposed on conventional geopolitics,” Weber wrote in the report. He tells GovInsider that the US government is “taking the point of view that we’ve been a little bit too reticent … not active enough in trying to reassert government authority and control” over foreign companies that want to sell tech in the country.
Washington’s stance on foreign tech will spawn similar attitudes in other countries, Weber believes. “Not because the United States is right, but just because the United States is a big player on the block.”
If the US and China are treating the digital world as a place where governments are “referees or umpires”, the trajectory will shift towards “more government presence, more rules, more regulation. Less freedom to innovate,” he says.
Countries will find it difficult to choose sides, particularly in 5G. “That’s a world I think nobody really wanted to live in, where it was you know pick one or the other, but I think that’s where we’re headed.” With this future, the world may need some form of “passport” for digital goods to move across different boundaries.
No norms in sight
“Who should lead the charge to course-correct if (perhaps when) things go wrong?” Weber wrote in his report. His research participants had differing answers, ranging from governments, large firms, to citizen movements.
But such guidelines will not exist anytime soon, he believes. Rather, “everybody’s making it up as they go along,” says Weber. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, “got out ahead of the consumers”, he says. “Two years in, there really hasn’t been as much action on GDPR.”
“So, it’s all an experiment,” says Weber. He is supportive of such experiments, but doesn’t think “preferences are stable enough for us to say: ‘Here’s what we should have that is good enough for everyone.’”
In the past year, conversations on international cyber norms have been going in different directions. “We have people out there in the UN talking about norms of restraint,” says Weber. At the same time, the US Solarium Commission discusses hunting adversaries before they reach American networks.
“There’s a real disconnect between what people are saying and what they’re doing. And that’s obviously corrosive,” says Weber. Now, it’s “awfully hard” for countries to rebuild trust in international discussions.
Countries could have collaborated on disease surveillance, for instance, but Weber doesn’t think this scenario will play out. The US is “not interested in building trust, but we’re interested in setting the rules ourselves and doing what’s good for us”. “I’m not terribly optimistic that we’re going to have good news on that score anytime soon,” he adds.
What can we expect?
In the next couple of years, Weber believes the US will continue to enact competition policy. “It’s going to be antitrust, about competition policy, and making decisions about whether or not some large private foreign firm should be allowed to do what they’re currently doing,” he adds.
On the contrary, other parts of the world like China and Singapore will focus on subsidies to grow data platform businesses, machine learning technologies, and incentivise human capital.
As of now, Weber believes there is no country that can be a model for others. “I feel like there’s bits of wisdom everywhere, and bits of idiocy everywhere,” he says.
Still, Weber is optimistic about the future of technology. The tech sector has been everybody’s “great saviour” during this pandemic, saving the world from being shut in without access to information, education, or work, he says.
“There’s an opportunity for tech companies to write a new covenant or contract with society,” says Weber. “That opportunity won’t last forever, and I hope they seize it. That would make me really optimistic.”
Governments and businesses are yet to seize the chance to ensure the internet will remain a trusted and undivided space. The spot for that incredibly challenging leadership job is still open.