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The Role of International Cooperation

As part of a weeklong series focusing on Mapping China’s ambitions, The Cipher Brief is in partnership with Harvard Research Fellow and former British diplomat Jamie Burnham to explore China’s threat vectors, how it is organizing to win, what a government ecosystem looks like, and the impact international collaboration will have in the future.

Today Burnham focuses on the importance of international collaboration. Earlier in The Cipher Brief, Burnham explored organizing a government data ecosystem, How? ‘Or’ What China is organizing to win and China’s broader ambitions and threat vectors.

Jamie Burnham, researcher at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of the Harvard Kennedy School

Jamie Burnham is an associate researcher at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, where he explores how digital technologies are changing political intelligence and policymaking. As a British diplomat, he served across Africa and the Middle East, with particular interests in the proliferation of weapon technology and the resilience of fragile states.

The magnitude and transnational nature of the challenge posed by China demands greater utility of the web of international relations that has evolved since World War II. The most well-established international information-sharing partnership is colloquially known as Five Eyes: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. David Omand, former director of GCHQ, describes a degree of mutual trust that comes from “a long history of respecting the sensitivity of the other, demonstrating that commitments made and restrictions imposed will be honored”.

However, data technologies are rapidly changing the information landscape. Beyond SIGINT, international data sharing has not evolved as rapidly as technology would allow or as new business drivers demand. Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, says that “US intelligence must reinvent its closest liaison partnerships, from those centered on intelligence sharing to those in intelligence generation, by building a full spectrum intelligence partnership. which jointly develops the technology and executes the technology enabled intelligence missions.

Institutional architecture is slow to develop, even within national borders. In an international context, change is hampered by conflicting political, legal, institutional and cultural interests. These can often be exacerbated by a mutual misunderstanding of issues and a lack of a shared vision of the Mission. All sharing tends to be two-way and one-off, with a high degree of suspicion about how information could be misused. The lack of an institutional architecture prevents sharing as a norm. Opportunities are missed. Highly beneficial secondary datasets (eg network analysis) may not benefit from the existing knowledge base of partners. New analytical techniques or innovations, such as machine learning algorithms, are not shared.


International data partnerships must be part of the necessary mutual response to the challenge from China (and other state actors). A data-sharing “backbone” can ensure the following operational benefits:

  • Increase efficiency by reducing duplication of data collection, cleaning and ingestion and by adopting a “data once” approach;
  • Encourage the sharing of high benefit secondary datasets, such as PRC acquisition networks;
  • Develop a common understanding of risks;
  • Improve cross-domain collaboration by more easily merging different data collection techniques to produce impact;
  • Encourage innovation and the sharing of techniques for exploiting data and analysis tools.

While there are technological and infrastructure challenges, they are unlikely to be the most significant hurdles, especially as the migration to cloud-based services will force common technology standards and highways. secure data. Greater inhibition is likely to sit in the following spheres:

  • Politics. The existing institutional arrangements are solid and proven. Undermining protocols and reliance on existing information sharing agreements would create significant risk and undermine consent to an emerging approach.
  • Legal. Five Eyes partners have different privacy and data governance laws, with much higher judicial oversight and regulation in jurisdictions that use the ‘Westminster’ system of government (UK, AUS, CAN, NZ ).
  • Governance. The functions of Data / Information Manager would normally be necessary to ensure common standards and appropriate investments. However, a collaborative governance system can be put in place, to ensure mutual interoperability.

Outside of the 5 EYES network, there may be opportunities to establish non-traditional data partnerships, recognizing some of the barriers to trust and regulatory divergence. These can be entities within Asian economies, such as the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) which has a deep store of business intelligence knowledge. With the UK’s departure from the European Union, there is greater freedom to establish an information regime that supports the protection of international trade and intellectual property.

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The ambition should be to provide a data backbone that enables a “network of networks”, in which liberal democracies are able to gain a knowledge advantage over their adversaries. Achieving such an ambition is unlikely to be easy and will require the patronage of senior leaders.


Threats to our citizens emerge along global infrastructure networks. PRC combines scale and technological skill to gain an advantage over established advanced economies. For the UK, the costs can be measured in terms of lost livelihoods, foregone tax revenues and compromised security capabilities.

At some level, the UK’s response will reflect the state’s ability to protect its citizens. Nick Clegg described his years as Deputy Prime Minister as being “stuck between the desire to react quickly to reasonable plans of action and the reality of heavy decision-making in government, caught between the politics of the digital age and the analog arrangements of Whitehall. ‘The infrastructure of the modern economy is not new. The technologies that drive change have been visible for many years. The government has been slow to develop business models that improve public service delivery while reducing costs. Within national security, the provision of data within and between functions has too often been seen as the exception rather than the rule.

The challenges present choices for the intelligence community. Most current intelligence practices will continue to have long-term strategic value. Behind even the most advanced technologies, there are people. Human intelligence is likely to always play a role in revealing the intentions of adversaries. However, if the absolute value of these techniques remains constant, its comparative value may decrease. The scale of activity is too large and the complexity too great to rely on niche collection systems to protect a large area of ​​threat. New forms of information gathering and dissemination are required, building on the existing skill base within government. The value of information should be determined by the impact rather than the sensitivity of the source.

The approaches required for data are, moreover, in direct conflict with the doctrines of covert intelligence gathering. The most effective way to maximize the value of data is to take a highly networked collaborative approach in which information is shared widely and instantly. These principles are contrary to intelligence practices which require that information be strongly compartmentalized and that the dissemination of information be minimized. There are reasons to take either approach, but making a choice may not be obvious to those who deliver into well-established business models. Cloud technologies will offer little benefit if existing practices are simply replicated.

A new China-focused data analysis capability requires an intelligence and information delivery model, which does not fit well with existing practices. It may be necessary to establish an equivalent of GCHQ’s NCSC that functions successfully in the low and high realms, or an organization outside of the current intelligence community. In any case, providing information requires more than acquiring tools and data, but a broader examination of assumptions, training, and political and regulatory governance. The boundaries between government capacity and the business sector can be made more fungible, with issues shared and resolved to support innovation. International networking partnerships can enable the sharing of ideas, methods and techniques and create opportunities for taking disruptive action.

Navigating these waters will require persistence and commitment, especially from senior management. If these paradoxes and conflicts can be managed, the benefits are likely to be greater. Intelligence agencies may in the long run evolve into “knowledge platforms” upon which a range of capacities to collect, exploit and act on information rely. They will also require a mission-driven, flat, inclusive, collaborative and creative organizational culture. Meeting the challenge of China requires the best of ourselves.

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