One of the greatest paradoxes in human existence is that armed conflict, which is, without doubt, the most destructive human activity ever, has also been one of the most significant catalysts for technological advancement and innovation.
Previous world wars led to the development of advances like jet engines, radar, nuclear power, and others. While most of these technological advances at the time of war were meant to give the side with the discovery significant advantage, they are later converted into civilian use, transforming industries as well as lifestyle.
Beyond gaining advantage during active conflict, the military also plays a national security role by acting preemptively to prevent conflict. The Internet, which is, without a doubt most significant technology advancement in our lifetime, was started as a United States Department of Defense project. Silicon Valley’s creation was also partly initially funded by the same department.
The art of war
Sun Tzu is an ancient Chinese general, strategist and philosopher whose words have remained relevant to those involved in Warcraft for centuries. He is frequently quoted by business strategists who most times wrongly equate competition to armed conflict. The quote which I believe is his best is not at all about winning at armed conflict; it is about the strategy of winning by avoiding it.
Sun Tzu said – “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” “All warfare is based on deception.”
The last sentence from the quote sums it up. All warfare is based on stealth and deception. The Germans gained a significant advantage in the World Wars with their U-Boat submarines, which gave them edge with stealth attacks. The massive Allied ship losses to U-boats led to the rapid discovery and deployment of radar for early detection. Radar also changed the nature of air warfare. Wars are also won by the elimination of stealth using countermeasures.
The art of stealth is also the art of gathering intelligence about current and potential adversaries. The Software company Palantir, founded by Peter Thiel provides software to large organisations like government agencies and corporations who want to analyse vast data sets to solve complex problems. Some of those complex problems include identifying national security and law enforcement threats preemptively.
I have worked in the payments and information security space, countless acts of terrorism and crime have been foiled globally by using payments and transportation movement data alone. My grief is that in my part of Africa, we don’t seem to take technology seriously enough to fight against adversaries of the economy and the state. Our governance and state apparatus are still mainly in the analog world when the adversaries are rapidly going digital and using it to their advantage.
Security flaws and lapses
Our armed forces and law enforcement are fighting conflicts on two fronts. Beyond the physical or analog surveillance and intelligence gathering, there is the digital frontier. The first time I heard about terrorism in Nigeria, it was from a YouTube video. Terrorists have not only mastered the art of digital propaganda, but they have also learned how to harness technology to their advantage in many other ways to maintain the conflict. Corruption and fraud have since gone digital. Kidnappers now also conduct digital reconnaissance on their suspects using social media.
I remember many years ago when I helped to set up an Internet account for a military officer, and I discovered he was using a public email address. I was very alarmed. At that time, we also didn’t even have control of our country top-level domain, and it was a national issue.
Thankfully, those issues have now been addressed, but I was, however, dismayed when I saw a Nigerian Police notice recently on Twitter with public Yahoo and Gmail email addresses for feedback.
Our Police statements remain recorded on pieces of paper; public records are also mostly still on paper. It will be hard to build solutions like those of Palantir locally if the government does not go fully digital. Offline data can’t be mined for insights digitally.
I get discouraged sometimes when I listen to public statements by members of the police and armed forces; it seems that young people using technology are their adversaries when the reverse should be the case. The military and law enforcement should be the first institutions supporting local technology and providing new challenges to be solved.
The US Department of Defense recently had a public tender process to upgrade their private cloud. It was a contract worth 10 billion dollars. All the major American technology companies bid for it, and it made me wonder if we will ever get there locally? Government spending on unique security requirements is an innovation catalyst and not just a way to create new billionaires.
Interestingly, Boston-based OpenLink Software, one of the world’s best database technology companies with innovation that could power the next iteration of the Internet was founded and run by Kingsley Idehen, a Nigerian who grew up and went to school in Benin City. We may already have something probably better than Palantir.
Local know-how and diaspora talent are not lacking when it comes to technology for national security or law enforcement projects. Our software developers and tech entrepreneurs are globally recognized and highly ranked. The problem is recognition and engagement at home.
Maybe the way forward can be a specific National Security Innovation Fund to independently support startups who could work exclusively with the military and law enforcement. I believe, however, that the best results will come from the military and police working closely with higher educational institutions or dedicated clusters on research projects.