Quantum computing, biotech, and climate change among threats of most concern to US

By Elisabeth Eaves, January 4, 2019

A quantum processor.A quantum processor.

Washington may appear consumed by the partial government shutdown, the 2020 presidential race, and the next Oval Office tweet, but the people paid to worry about long-term national security threats have their eyes on the ball—on 26 balls, in fact. Lost amid all the holidays and breaking news, the Government Accountability Office released a December report detailing the “long-range emerging threats” of greatest concern to the Defense Department, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Long-range,” here, means “may occur in approximately 5 or more years” or “in a future unknown time frame,” which sounds like it means anytime starting tomorrow.

The December report is the public version of a classified one issued in September, containing less of the sort of detail an enemy of the state might find useful. Still, it’s an interesting guide to global risks. Some of the 26 threats the government has identified are predictable and US-specific—Washington is concerned about China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, no surprise. Other threats are more universal, though, cause for concern for governments and citizens pretty much everywhere. The list includes nine types of weapons and six dual-use technologies (those that can be used for good or ill), as well as infectious diseases, “internal and international migration,” and climate change. You can read the whole report here, and it comes with a categorized and color-coded list for easy digestion. Here are a few of its more intriguing sentences, followed by my quick takes:

Terrorists could advance their tactics, including building nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Nuclear and biological weapons have remained largely out of reach of terrorist groups, because they are expensive and complicated to build. But biotechnology is getting steadily cheaper and more accessible. Elsewhere the report notes, “The proliferation of synthetic biology—used to create genetic code that does not exist in nature—may increase the number of actors that can create chemical and biological weapons.”

Quantum computing may allow adversaries to decrypt information, which could enable them to target U.S. personnel and military operations.

As Elsa B. Kania recently wrote, “Although the United States has been the trailblazer in quantum science, China’s advances and ambitions are starting to challenge the traditional US lead.”

The United States may face difficulties protecting networks and data as [the internet of things] grows and traditional approaches for security (e.g., encryption) may no longer effectively protect information.

Millions of households bristling with connected devices make cybersecurity harder to achieve. Then again, it may prove easier than getting people to disconnect from their Alexas and Siris.

China is developing underwater acoustic systems that could coordinate swarm attacks—the use of large quantities of simple and expendable assets to overwhelm opponents—among vehicles and provide greater undersea awareness.

Swarming will change warfare, as Army of None author Paul Scharre wrote in November.

Future advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, data analytics, and space-based platforms could create an environment of “ubiquitous ISR” [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], where people and equipment could be tracked throughout the world in near-real time.

The eye in the sky will really be watching.

New and evolving diseases from the natural environment—exacerbated by changes in climate, the movement of people into cities, and global trade and travel—may become a pandemic.

It’s a question of when, not if. As Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Bulletin last year, “What we don’t know about flu is exactly when the next flu pandemic will occur, but I think all flu virologists and public health experts believe that it’s a matter of time.”

Extreme weather events—such as hurricanes and megadroughts—could intensify and affect food security, energy resources, and the health care sector. Diminishing permafrost could expand habitats for pathogens that cause disease.

Unfortunately the White House is dismantling regulations that would help prevent these problems.

Our adversaries may include foreign governments, violent extremists, transnational criminal organizations, and megacorporations.

Which private companies does the United States count as “adversaries”? Members of Congress, citing intelligence, have criticized Chinese tech giants ZTE and Huawei as threats, saying they could (for instance) use mobile phone sales as a beachhead to invade privacy and steal data.

And, oh yeah:

It is not possible to predict every potential long-range emerging threat.

At least someone is working on it, though. Oh, wait, the Department of Homeland Security is among those hit by the government shutdown, so most of its 245,000 employees are working without pay until a spending bill is passed. Good thing these threats are long-range.


Publication Name: US Government Accountability Office
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