INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVE: Cloud Service Providers as the Technological Arsenal Of Democracy

By Jason Atwell

iStock illustration

The United States has always led with the private sector when it comes to national power, both in preserving our own and protecting that of our partners and allies.
Many of the greatest accomplishments in U.S. history have been made possible by a close, purposeful relationship between the public and private sectors.

The U.S. government and our largest, most dynamic corporations have achieved great things together: Liberty ships, the Apollo program and the internet all met a government need using creative commercial wherewithal. The “tech industry” has been a key player in many of these types of initiatives.

We are now in an environment where tech companies are perhaps the crucial arbiters of how we project power, ensure global stability and collaborate with our allies. This has the potential to bring into ever closer alignment the bulk of the United States’ and likeminded allies’ defining attributes through the same platforms that host popular culture, foster democratic values and help us collaborate and communicate with friends and colleagues the world over.

It would be nearly impossible to maintain our position and relevancy without the internet’s connectivity and the efficiency of its attendant infrastructure.

The relationship between tech and government is not new, and it may be obvious to most, however we are in the early stages of a renewal of the dynamics involved as well as the global competitive landscape, one that will see the large-scale adoption of cloud computing as a defining and enabling characteristic.

It is no accident that the recently published “National Defense Science and Technology Strategy” specifically highlights “cloud computing and data sharing” as the new “norm” and a critical component of modernizing and upgrading digital infrastructure.

The role of public-private partnership in pursuing national security goals has become a central component of our strategic frameworks and the international order, and cloud service providers will play a vital role in national security and international stability.

Governing documents, such as the White House’s May 2021 “Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity,” have placed the providers at the center of forward-looking planning and initiatives. They provide the infrastructure and services that enable governments to collect, store and analyze data, as well as communicate and collaborate with one other.

The synergies created by this shared platform usage can be used to track and monitor threats, develop new technologies, or even plan and execute military or homeland security operations. This creates an unprecedented opportunity for interoperability. Instead of merely selling allies vehicles and guns, we can now marry them up with our command-and-control networks, intelligence analytical frameworks and data streams.

In the past, large industrial entities such as railroads, oil companies and steel mills played a similar role in national security. Cloud service providers are different in that they are not tied to any particular country or region, nor are they inherently tied to the industrial capacity for war-making, as they can also enable soft power. This makes them both methods of deterrence in terms of military resilience, but also ties them to peaceful alternatives to rogue regimes and adversarial nations. They are both guarantors of deterrent stability and enablers of civil society, giving them a uniquely advantageous position in an age of renewed great power competition.

It is a very deliberate and historically appropriate parallel when President Joe Biden recently praised the defense industry in terms of “the arsenal of democracy” and invoked World War II. The war in Ukraine has clearly demonstrated that the United States is still an indispensable partner for the defense of democracy, and that it cannot fulfill that role without its technologically enabled economic might.

It is widely acknowledged that Ukrainian organizational and infrastructure resilience was only possible through cloud technology. This model will only become more essential to national security and international stability in the future.

The United States is currently engaged in competition with China for global dominance. Both countries are investing heavily in cloud computing and artificial intelligence. The United States has a distinct advantage in having several leading cloud providers, including Amazon, Microsoft and Google. These companies have the resources and expertise to protect the nation and its allies as discussed above.

China is also investing heavily in cloud computing, but it does not have the same level of capabilities or global market share as the United States, which, along with Europe, has also taken steps to limit Chinese access to this technology to preserve information dominance, thus securing America’s role as the provider of secure platforms and technology in conjunction with trusted service providers.

The role of cloud service providers in national security will continue to evolve. As new technologies emerge, cloud providers will need to adapt to meet the changing needs of governments and other customers.

However, the basic role of cloud providers will remain the same: to provide the infrastructure and services that enable governments to project national power and achieve their objectives. The first version of the arsenal of democracy played to America’s strengths on the factory floor; we couldn’t win the war without General Motors, but we also needed Ford and Chrysler and many others to scale our advantage.

Likewise, cloud service providers can provide this new technological arsenal, but we can only do it together and in close partnership with the government. ND

Jason Atwell is a program manager at Google Public Sector and Mandiant Intelligence.

Topics: Defense Department

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