The tech arms race

Some claim the latest trade war is part of the newest arms race: the tech arms race. This arms race is, according to many, a battle between the US and China – the two leading powers in the world. But as technological progress comes with great investment, where’s the largest economic block in the world – the EU? After all, didn’t the Soviets (partly) lose the race to the moon due to lack of investment? Didn’t the US just pump money into its military to become the dominant military force in the world – and isn’t China doing something similar now?

The EU in cyber perspective

There are many ways of measuring the status of technological development and innovation. One way is to measure the number of patents. After all, possessing technology that other parties can’t copy is an advantage in this tech arms race. And patenting serves exactly this purpose. In absolute terms, the EU is far behind the US and China. However, considering the number of patents per $1bn invested, the EU slightly outperforms China. But the Chinese, and Singapore, are the biggest growers.

Another clear advantage in this tech arms race is superior cybersecurity. The Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI) gives precious insight on the matter, indicating that the US is leading the pack, with China not even in the top 10. The EU finds its highest Member State in 9th (Estonia) and 10th (Germany) place. Perhaps equally important are cyber attacks, ranging from ransomware and DDoS to sophisticated infiltrations of power plants. Russia appears to be strong in this regard, especially in espionage, while the US appears to be weak due to a large amount of hacks and leaks. China is regarded as a fierce attacker, but also a gigantic target in terms of malware. The EU finds itself in the middle, but the Nordics and the Dutch stand out in a positive way and the Germans appear to be under attack from different sides.

Despite the very average ratings, the EU is trying to “beef up” its cybersecurity. An increase in research and development, a setting up of networks of cybersecurity across the Union, and a certification framework have been initiated in late 2017 and the Member States are working on these.

The hickups

The EU block is more than just its Member States culminated. Estonia is a very digital savvy country and the Dutch appear to have decent intelligence. But as a block, the EU does not have a clear line (yet), which weakens the whole. Cybersecurity resilience will be promoted as part of the Digital Single Market. This will be done through strengthening the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA), the creation of a single cybersecurity market, and implementation of the NIS directive – the first ever piece of EU legislation on cybersecurity.

However, this is all not in place yet, leaving ENISA as another European toothless institute, the single cybersecurity market as a goal at the horizon, and the NIS directive as a dusty book on the shelf. Until this time, the cybersecurity strategy remains fragmented and the coordination rather loose. The Digital Single Market should solve these issues, and, more importantly, close the gaps between individual Member States.

Estonia is frontrunner in connectivity, while the Germans are actually lagging with technology. The Dutch have strong intelligence but will struggle with the 5G out roll. The Italians remain very vague on what their current digital infrastructure encompasses, and the Visegrád Group decided to put cybersecurity in different silos at different ministries in order to make coordination and progress as complex as possible. Clearly, the EU needs to create a common infrastructure through the Digital Single Market. Otherwise, the tech arms race is lost before it begins.

An opportunity

China and the US are more concerned with slowing each other down than rushing to the top. This gives the EU momentum. Some of the individual Member States have significant knowledge and sufficient resources are in place. The EU’s biggest concern is to form one common policy, get every Member State’s infrastructure on a minimum level, and align all its internal parties – companies and governments alike. Therefore, the Digital Single Market has gained even more urgency than when it was initially proposed.

The EU has not been eliminated from this tech arms race. But shifting to the next gear is required now, otherwise the engine is threatening to break down.

Author: Koen Durlinger

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