The American government must have successful relationships with academia and the business sector in order to win the ongoing data competition with China, according to David Spirk, the Department of Defense’s chief data officer.
Both the U.S.government and the Chinese government scoop up all kinds of data, from publicly accessible information to knowledge gathered from satellites and electronic signals. But China has access to data generated by its commercial sector because of policies that remove barriers between businesses and the country’s communist rulers.
America’s government and business sectors are independent, though the Biden administration has sought new partnerships between companies and government to bolster U.S. cyber defenses.
Mr. Spirk told reporters at George Washington University’s Project for Media and National Security on Wednesday that America is not losing its competition with China — yet.
“I don’t necessarily see China having an advantage over us,” Mr. Spirk said. “But I do understand that if we don’t continue to partner with our commercial sector, with some of what I view [as] our lead cloud vendors, and see them as national security treasures in addition to some of our just academic powerhouses, if we don’t continue to grow those partnerships and leverage those capabilities, then I think we’ll find ourselves falling off pace.”
Mr. Spirk said the U.S. is focused on the speed and accuracy of its decisions because it is aware that authoritarian rule gives China the ability to leverage data taken from its large population in a way that is unacceptable in a free society like the U.S.
Mr. Spirk took over as the Defense Department’s chief data officer in 2020 and he said the government is making a transition toward focusing on data quality, as opposed to simply collection, in order to give the U.S. a larger advantage.
“I think when I look at our adversaries, they now have the same ability that the commercial sector has to harness massive amounts of data and generate decision-advantage with them,” Mr. Spirk said. “If we don’t conduct that same activity, and we have been for some time, then we will lag behind and just like industry, we’ll see ourselves being eclipsed from a capability standpoint because others do create that decision-advantage.”
Others within the Department of Defense have sounded far more pessimistic about America’s tech competition with China. Former Air Force Chief Software Officer Nicolas Chaillan left the government in September and publicly warned that America was losing the artificial intelligence and cyber race but he stressed that time remained to turn things around.
Mr. Chaillan faulted the American tech sector’s reluctance to work with the U.S. government as a problem that has given China a competitive edge.
Under the Biden administration, the federal government has taken steps to thaw the government’s icy relationships with tech companies — relationships that chilled when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden shared government secrets about American surveillance efforts leveraging the private sector.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency took a lead role last year in establishing the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative to enable government agencies to work with tech companies against hackers and cyberattackers.
The Department of Defense and several other national security and law enforcement agencies teamed with a slew of companies including Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud in the new partnership.
Some of the federal government’s courtship of the tech sector predates President Biden but the relationship has grown more formal since Mr. Biden took office.
Ahead of the 2020 election, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agency officials met with tech executives from companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft to coordinate efforts to combat foreign influence.
Last year, the Department of Defense’s research and development arm announced plans to spend $59.5 million in the coming four years on researchers refining the algorithms used to gather and evaluate content such as tweets, memes, and blog posts, all as part of an effort to better detect “early warning” signs of foreign influence.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Influence Campaign Awareness and Sensemaking” program has enlisted an array of companies, labs and institutions, including researchers from the Universities of Illinois and Southern California.
In a competition pitting American innovation against Chinese authoritarian control, Mr. Spirk is betting on America to win.
“If we continue and accelerate on this data journey, I don’t see any reason that we won’t stay the pacing threat for the rest of the world,” Mr. Spirk said.