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Toward a Government Data Ecosystem

Toward a Government Data Ecosystem


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 is focused on the path to a government ecosystem. Earlier in The Cipher Brief, Burnham explored China’s grand ambitions and threat vectors, as well as how Beijing is organizing against those ambitions and threat vectors. So, once governments understand the threats, how can they use their data more effectively?


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.

Knowledge has no value if it is not used. A data analytics capability must act as part of a larger government data ecosystem. The UK’s Integrated National Security Review recognizes that state economic, security and influence capabilities can provide a complementary advantage in achieving strategic objectives. He recognizes that as the “volume of data grows exponentially, the ability to generate and use it to drive innovation will be a critical catalyst for strategic advantage.”

Network Analysis Support Toward a Government Data Ecosystem

An analytical capacity on China should be seen as providing insight and knowledge to political and operational decisions across a range of security and intelligence functions. Basic requirements could be, for example, to provide information in low-potential environments to enable early interventions in foreign direct investment decisions or export control orders or, perhaps, to understand the resilience of the vaccine supply chain. In a high-level environment, data can be merged with other collection systems to monitor the impact on military capabilities or to inform counterintelligence investigations. Integrating data into a larger system is in part a technological challenge (using API gateways) but also requires collaboration across institutional boundaries to formulate questions and build models.

Intelligence has long been provided in the form of reports: brief, eye-catching statements that provide ministers and decision-makers with timely information about an adversary. Paper remains the basic unit of intelligence. However, different decision makers consume data in different ways. A military commander, for example, will appreciate the speed and accuracy of information in a tactical situation. While a Minister of Defense will prefer the accessibility of a data dashboard to shed light on spending on new capabilities. In building information systems, presenting and visualizing data is as important a skill as writing an intelligence report. Types of products that might be useful to government decision makers might include:

  • Investment risk assessment. An investment company registered in the Cayman Islands is seeking a stake in a UK technology company. The government will want to understand the past and known behavior of the investment company, its associations with the Chinese state, and whether the technology is an acquisition target.
  • Supply chain assessment. A vaccine manufacturing plant has a global network of suppliers. The British government wants to understand how much the supply of the future vaccine depends on the Chinese state.
  • Support for interventions abroad. The main shareholder of a UK semiconductor company is registered in Canada. A Chinese state-owned venture capital fund seeks a controlling stake in the Canadian owner. The transfer of technology will support China’s military capability. The British diplomatic network needs information to support engagement with the Canadian government.

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INTERVENTION AND DISTURBANCE

The UK government is developing a range of policy responses that support better national resilience, such as the law governing foreign investment. These will be necessary, but they are unlikely to be sufficient. Mitigating the risks of China’s displayed behaviors may require disruptive and targeted interventions that reduce the effectiveness of confrontation. These interventions may require the specific capabilities of the intelligence community or be overt. They must be legal, necessary and proportionate and subject to the control of ministers. They may include judicial or regulatory intervention or the use of the global diplomatic network to enable action in foreign jurisdictions, for example collaboration with the US Treasury.

The impact can be increased if Chinese capacities are viewed as networks, with interdependent nodes, rather than as stand-alone entities. The principles of network disruption are well established in the fight against military formations or terrorist networks, but have not been applied to China’s acquisition capabilities. This requires an analytical approach that identifies vulnerabilities in an adversary’s systems, against which limited resources can be concentrated. By analogy, a leader will seek to remove the queen bee from a hive rather than hunting thousands of worker bees. RAND’s “Vulnerability Assessment Method” provides a useful model for structured analysis. It advocates the use of Carver principles to provide a numerical assessment of the different elements of a network.

Read Part 4 of the Cipher Brief China Special Series with Harvard Fellow Jamie Burnham in Tomorrow’s Cipher Brief. You can read Part One: Ambitions and Threat Vectors and Part Two: Towards a Government Data Ecosystem.

Read more national security news, analysis and insights from experts in The Cipher Brief

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