How can governments use cyber to strengthen their diplomatic reach and heft? Jo Massey spotlights this evolving field and considers how the UK is seeking to move from steps to strides
Technology, in all its forms, offers myriad opportunities and threats to every country’s global interests. But when examining shifting power, not all technology is equal.
While broad digitalisation and cloud technologies offer governments worldwide a new opportunity to increase their global influence, other technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, biometrics and 5G/6G, have frequently been lauded as having the potential to help them extend their power overseas and counter the influence of adversaries.
Will Middleton, Cyber Director at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), told us recently that cyber is now seen as a critical national asset. “You can’t cut yourselves off from cyber space,” he said. “This means we have to look at where we are vulnerable and where our allies are vulnerable, so we have to be strategic about identifying where we want to build existing capabilities and where we want to learn from others.”
The good news is he and his colleagues are already doing so.
Diplomacy – cyber style
Cyber is now considered a key topic of engagement in UK foreign policy, included in bilateral and multilateral agreements with nations around the world, and increasingly prominent in discussions about internet governance. The UK envisages an open, free, peaceful and secure internet and a means of promoting human rights and inclusion.
To help turn this vision into reality, the FCDO can call on a workforce of over 20,000 people in 270 diplomatic offices around the world, the FCDO’s vast set of embassies and high commissions are a massive legacy that gives the UK a competitive advantage over other nations which lack such a genuinely global network to call upon.
The department has historically been very effective at bringing together information from across this network and using it to shape the UK’s foreign policy. With more than 700 official social media profiles across the world, the FCDO can use this constellation of communication channels to help achieve its foreign policy goals and proactively manage its image and reputation via content tailored to the unique characteristics of local audiences.
The department has also not been afraid to innovate: it was the first foreign ministry on Snapchat; the first to use Twitter for customer service on travel advice; UKinUSA was the first on Buzzfeed; its embassy in New Zealand was the first to use Periscope; and it was one of the first to broadcast via Facebook Live.
In 2016 the then FCO was named best social media user, Snapchat user, blogger of the year, and Facebook page of the year, among the world’s ministries for foreign affairs. Increased use of this expertise for further insight, as well as communications, is critical to keeping the UK at the forefront of global diplomacy.
Better use of data can also further strengthen this information pipeline, delivering deeper, more nuanced insights, helping the UK’s understanding of shifting trends, as well as enabling the UK to be better informed of the activities of its allies and adversaries.
For example, effective use of big data can help diplomats prepare for complex negotiations, removing bias on possible impacts and generally strengthening evidence-based decision making. They can also use it to measure the impact of their own diplomatic efforts, which is a complex data challenge capturing sentiment, perceptions and actions of nations and societies around the world. And governments could also use a combination of geospatial data, satellite imagery and on the ground intelligence to forecast migration waves or humanitarian crises.
Furthermore, the digital trace left by online societal behaviour, of the type mentioned above (Twitter, Facebook and so on) captured in the form of researchable data, offers data scientists, including those in government, a unique insight into how to devise more effective policies and to increase understanding of global responses to global issues.
Naturally, there are security-related restrictions on the types of software permitted to be installed on diplomats’ computers, but enabling government representatives to get hands-on experience of data analytics tools and fostering a culture of research to optimise genuine use of the data available, could significantly increase the UK’s local understanding and wider influence in diverse geographies.
Technology has levelled the playing field, enabling countries with a smaller network to achieve a more effective global reach. In the past, the department could rely on the sheer volume of its data to be better informed than other countries. Now, staying ahead of smaller nations requires a new cadre of trained data scientists and engineers to enter the diplomatic service, with the cost implications of recruiting such specialist staff.
Strengthening the global order
There is no doubt that technology is changing power and statecraft. What’s important, though, is that it doesn’t repurpose it. Diplomacy remains the art of building mutual coexistence, of fostering greater harmony in an interconnected world, of safeguarding human rights and helping create opportunity for all.
When used well, it can help build bridges to a brighter, safer and more tolerant future – now surely that’s a vision that the UK and countries around the world can get behind.
About the author
Jo Massey is Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) Account Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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